I’m totally into thigmotropism. I bet you are, too.
Into what?? Yeah, I hadn’t heard that word until recently. Very recently. But after learning the word, lots of things make sense.
Like collecting sticks like this…
and writing a post about this:
…and being called “Twisted Sister” by one of my botanist friends (Bob O’Kennon, one of the editors of the Flora of North Central Texas). Why does he call me Twisted Sister? Because I LOVE thigmotropism! I just didn’t know it, until a friend (Suzanne Barnard of the LISD Outdoor Learning Area) shared this worksheet (look at definition “c”):
I knew about gravitropism and phototropism, but I’ve been a fan of thigmotropism for a long time without even knowing the name. I realize not everyone is a word nerd like I am, but isn’t it fun to learn there’s a word to describe something you’ve been enjoying for a long time? I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere about the human brain and how we learn.
At first it was hard to remember the strange word, but then I thought about the definition: plant growth in response to contact with another thing… thigmotropism… it’s like you’re saying “thing” but with a stuffy nose. (In other words, say “thing” without the ‘n’.) That’s my mnemonic device, anyway.
So, years ago, as these various trees and vines grew together in dappled shade, and touched each other and began an epic battle-dance for height and sunshine and space, I was developing an affinity for all things twisty, winding, and coiled. As these plants responded, each to the presence of the other, and allocated resources to the tussle, I was collecting sticks and stones and shells. And I started to refine my collections of sticks, leaning toward the twisted, the mangled, the beautifully bent. Some of these plants, or parts of them, died, and fell upon my future path, where I found them and treasured them and took them home. These events made a perfect nest in my mind for the word (and the concept of) thigmotropism.
I can understand why some people ascribe to synchronicity – some series of events seem laid out just for us!
Lessons I take from this turn of events (see what I did there?):
- There’s always something unexpected to be learned.
- Generous teacher friends are the best.
- Encourage people to collect natural items (ethically and sustainably, of course). Patterns will emerge, and there are wonderful lessons to be learned.
What patterns do you see in your collections?
How do you look up a word you have no idea how to spell? And how do you identify a bug if you have no idea where to start? How do YOU unravel the insect mystery in front of you?
My recent entomological adventure started one lazy summer morning when my husband and I heard a familiar sound: a flying insect trying to get out by buzzing against a closed window. The poor thing was too high for us to help. Hours later in the evening, we found (we presume) the same bug, tuckered out and resting on a houseplant. Easily caught, observed, and then released, it filled my next hours with interest.
However, I feel my research could be more efficient if I knew a few tricks… or tips… or resources… or a little more about entomology. I’m looking for your suggestions.
Here’s what I did this time, and I’m hoping this convinces other novices, teachers and students that you DON’T have to already know everything. You can start from ground zero and still get close to the ‘right’ answer pretty quickly.
- Capture carefully. Don’t endanger yourself or the insect. Release when you’re done.
- Observe, photograph, and SKETCH. Sketching helps you notice important details you’d miss otherwise, which most amateur-level cameras (like cameraphones) are not powerful or fast enough to capture. This became important in step 6!
- Mentally compare to what you know. What does its coloring remind you of? Its shape? Don’t worry if you have less-than-basic knowledge. If you’ve thought of a comparison for the bug, you can bet someone else has, too, and it may lead you closer to identification. In this case, the coloring and the shape indicated conflicting answers: the warning coloration resembled wasps/yellowjackets, but those bulbous eyes and tiny antennae reminded me of… could it be… a fly?? I based that inkling on having taken a cursory glance at worksheets like this:
- Search for your hunch. I typed “yellow jacket look-alikes” into a search engine and scrolled through photos. The closest photo was from a BLOG, a wonderful find with great information, sending me in a new direction (which I’d never heard of): syrphid flies.
- Refine your search. Armed with new info, I Googled “syrphidae”. Again, there’s no magic or secret knowledge here – this was a completely new word to me. I wondered whether it would lead to an ID.
- Follow your leads but focus on details. If something looks close, follow it! Learn more about it. (Do you have resources to suggest?) The most informative “syrphidae” image I found was a compilation of species on Wikipedia:
At this point, the trail seemed to get cold. Two of the closest look-alikes in the image weren’t a match to the pattern on the thorax and the golden accents on the abdomen of the individual I’d seen.
- Embrace persistence. Don’t give up on details you’ve noticed! False leads and dead ends are all part of the chase. Just keep going.
- Check trusted sources. I’d looked at Wikipedia, and felt I was on the right track with “syrphidae.” I’ve seen BugGuide.net several times in other searches, so decided to try that site. It confirmed I was on the right track at the Family level, but there was a LONG list of species to click through, and no thumbnails – not an easy resource for a novice to use.
The same was true of a Canadian website. OMG, Ontario!
- Focus on your area. That Canadian site gave me an idea. Perhaps my bug was unique to Texas, or at least notable in Texas. I Googled “syrphidae of Texas.” Persistence again paid off, because on the ELEVENTH row of images I found something promising (bottom right). Clicking the image led me to THIS page, and a potential identification! Milesia virginiensis, the Flower Fly. (Interestingly, its range is from Canada to Texas. The Canadian site wasn’t far off my trail!)
- Ask the experts. You can do this digitally, thanks to iNaturalist. I posted my potential identification and photos and clicked the “ID Please!” button. (I wonder if the iNaturalist community would appreciate the sketch? They seem to be photo-dominated.) Thanks to those who responded, I learned a more full name (Virginia Flower Fly), and that BugGuide has a key I can use next time I find a Syrphid fly.
- Be ok with uncertainty. It’s ok to be corrected, it’s ok to be wrong, it’s ok to tell people “I’m pretty sure this is…” Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to be 100% right all the time. You’re always learning, and you set an example to emulate when you admit it.
I’ve found TWO more blogs that seem to validate my ID.
This ID’ing adventure shows that naturalists have an important voice on the internet. Most people haven’t been trained in their local flora and fauna, and they need a guide – even a digital one – when learning about their natural heritage.
The title’s dramatic, but there’s an opportunity for you to help monitor the spread of potentially deadly-disease-carrying Kissing Bugs. You can be a citizen scientist, an epidemiologist, and a nature hero, all while doing what you probably already do: observing nature at home and at your favorite outdoor places.
There is a family of bugs called Assassin bugs (the scientific name of the family is Reduviidae). A small subset of these are in the genus Triatoma. An even smaller group of species within this genus may carry Chagas disease, which is an uncommon disease, but worthy of attention. What does this have to do with you? Texas A&M University is studying the spread of the disease, and they need eyes on the ground. Your eyes.
What can you do?
- First, stay calm. This isn’t a huge health crisis. It’s just an area of study and interest.
- Read this informative brochure about Triatoma and what info Texas A&M needs if you find one.
- Continue your nature observations in your favorite places, and get in contact with Texas A&M if you find species that look like Triatoma (contact info is in the brochure link). Actually, based on my experience this week, you may want to contact them just to let them know you’re looking.
- Watch for bugs like this:
My Recent Experience
Because a friend let me know about this new study, I had Triatoma on the brain as I was helping with a wilderness survival camp for kids at LLELA (led by Mark Suter of Primitive Texas). When one of the campers saw a cool bug, I recognized it as an Assassin bug. I thought it looked a lot like Triatoma, so I carefully encouraged it into a little container I had.
I took photos of it and sent them to Texas A&M. In a very short time I had an answer back: the little guy/gal wasn’t in Triatoma after all. I could release it! (Good thing; I didn’t want to have to kill it, even if it was a dangerous offender.)
Interestingly, Texas A&M wanted the location of the bug, even though it wasn’t in Triatoma. In graduate researcher Rachel Curtis’ words:
We are trying to build some models to map where kissing bugs can be found in Texas. Along with all the kissing bug locations we have, we need some “known negative locations”. These are locations where people (like you!) are looking for kissing bugs, but not finding any. We have a way to randomly generate locations, but it is best to include actual locations where we know people are looking for kissing bugs.
So you may want to contact Texas A&M to let them know you’re looking, even if you’re not finding anything. This may be a case of “no news is good news.”
After all this excitement, I made my third ever contribution to iNaturalist with these photos:
After a few responses to my photos and request for help with the ID, I think what I found is a Bee Assassin (Apiomerus spissipes).
Moral(s) of the story:
- You do NOT have to kill first and ask questions later.
- It’s great to have friends who are in-the-know about nature and the news.
- Citizen Science opportunities abound!
- It’s good to have your camera with you.
- iNaturalist can be a great source of identification help… as long as you have a reasonable quality camera.
It’s 4am, and so still in the courtyard I can write by unflickering candle. A single star is out to mock me – the sky prediction for Stars on the Prairie last night was only 60% cloud cover. Ha! We had 98% cover. Last month the prediction was 95% cover, so I cancelled, and the sky was clear. Guess it’s easier to predict temperature & humidity, which NOAA usually gets spot-on. So I learned my lesson – don’t cancel, and those who show up despite clouds ARE indeed ok with having a night hike!
I’m writing because of an intense desire brought about by a near-irony. I made journaling an important part of the camp I taught/led for the last two weeks. Kids ages 7-12 worked on enhancing & listening to their senses – sights, sounds, smells, and the feel of our surroundings. Not all were interested, but some were enthralled, self-directed, studious observers & artists. They just needed a little encouragement and freedom, and the journals came out unbidden.
Yet my journaling & observation languished! I did every exercise with the kids, but I imagine teaching journaling is like teaching yoga – it’s hard to indulge & immerse yourself when you’re responsible for guiding others. This long weekend of camping may be a perfect journaling retreat for me.
Note: after scanning this page, I scratched through “cirrus” and wrote “stratus”.
I’m studying Homo sapiens var. photographensis. How does this subspecies take such excellent photographs? Let’s observe this one in particular.
He crouches. He stands. He reflects. He shades his eyes. He adjusts his tripod. No good; he shakes his head and moves to another location. He leans in. He zooms in. He seems to freeze for several moments. The breeze blows. He waits.
Suddenly, his finger deftly presses a button. Click!
He repeats this process. Several times.
Inexplicably (to the uninitiated photographer), he goes to his car to get another lens. He returns and continues to repeat the previous process, relocating, moving, pausing. He seems to ponder something unseen to this observer.
His clothes and hat show he is prepared for long hours outdoors. His conversation is full of species names and descriptions, which can also be heard when conversing with H. sapiens var. entomologista, botanista, forestris and others… but conversation with individuals of the subspecies photographensis often reflect a depth of observation not found among the impatient or collectors. He can describe butterfly dances, bird parades, and other secret behind-the-scenes shows of nature.
I’ve been observing this individual for almost 30 minutes now, and the blazing sun, high humidity, and 80 degree temperature seems not to have an effect. Truly, this is a hardy variety of Homo sapiens.
(With apologies to the highly esteemed photographer in these photographs. These are my actual field notes from Tuesday.)
DISCOVERED: starfish alien flower life form!
I ecstatically soaked up information and enthusiasm at the 5th Annual the State of the Prairie Conference. I’m beyond glad that the Coastal Prairie Partnership decided to host the conference in Fort Worth, the Prairie Queen City of Texas. I might never have heard of the conference otherwise, and would be truly impoverished if I never met this group of knowledgeable, engaged, and proactive biologists, conservationists, land owners, and practitioners.
One of many great features of the conference was the field trips. My chosen trip was to the McFarland and Hilmont ranches. Jason Singhurst of Texas Parks and Wildlife and Dana Wilson were along, and their wealth of plant knowledge was as useful as it was stunning. I saw and touched plants I’ve never even heard of before. One of them was Matelea biflora, a vine I’ve never seen. LOOK at this thing!
Notice the hairyness. Also, did you see the reason it’s called biflora (two flower)? There’s a green bud in the frame. These plants usually have two flowers together – no more, no less. (I’ve heard Star Milkvine is also called two-flower milkvine. Have you heard something like “two-flower milk weed vine” as its common name? I couldn’t find any references to that name online, but I only made a cursory search.)
Out of context, this plant may seem weird, or perhaps even wonderful, but it’s as disjunct as a factoid on a cereal box.
Only when you climb a hilltop in a generational ranch which is ecologically managed, and see this plant in its full range of life stages, scattered amongst other glorious flowers and inconspicuous green life, and take in the air and clouds and breadth of view – and realize you’re standing in a precious ecosystem that we have the power to save or wipe out – do you realize any plant’s significance. Star Milkvine is a harbinger of habitat, an ecological beacon. Whether it’s on the Floristic Quality Index or not, this plant is associated with good prairie, and if you live in the DFW metroplex (or any other urban area in the central US which is bursting at the seams) you understand how vanishingly rare that is.
I’m proud to have ‘discovered’ this weird life form and to have documented it. I’ve been re-introduced to iNaturalist.org by Michael Fox, and I think I’ve finally got the impetus to fully participate, so I’ll be uploading my finds from this conference to iNaturalist soon. I’ll also be sharing more photos via my Facebook and Tumblr page, so stay tuned.
Thank you for participating in Field Notes Friday by reading my observations and and by sharing yours. We make a difference in others’ lives when we share our field notes; we’re educating and enchanting our friends and the public with the otherwise unnoticed life all around them.
Something simple today: 2 drawings and the photos that inspired them. Lindheimer Daisy, Texas Yellow Star, Lindheimera texana – whatever you call it, it’s in bloom, bud, and seed in North Texas.
I’ve always loved Texas Yellowstar seed heads, but this week I paid attention to the flowers and the buds. I took pictures, mostly because I wanted to draw them but didn’t have time right then. I’ve gone to one drawing class since my latest art kick (at A Creative Arts Studio), and the instructor told me it would be easiest to start by emulating other drawings, then move on to photographs, then live/in-person. I couldn’t find drawings of Lindheimera texana online (and wasn’t lugging around my 20-lb copy of the Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas), so photos had to do. And they did rather well. I was able to zoom in on the photos the way I’d want to do with a loupe and the real thing, and finding a spot on a picnic bench under a cottonwood tree to concentrate and draw was like a mini-vacation.
- Only 10 lobes [I crossed through my first, less observant attempt]
- In the Spring, 2 shades of green are the most important colors to have.
- This is not just shading [around the center of the bud]; there is some sort of casing/cupping around those lobes
- A rather bedraggled Texas Yellostar/Lindheimer daisy… but one with personality.
- A central vein seems to lead to a div[o]t at end of petal.
- After looking at more pics, I’m not actually sure what stage I drew yesterday. It’s so green it seems pre-bloom… but what I thought was post-bloom looks almost the same, just brown.
For me, sketching and drawing has been a matter of facing my fears, learning a few simple techniques, slowing down to pay more attention, and being pleased with the process. I hope you’ll join me and others in sketching… or writing… or listing… or experiencing nature in whatever way makes most sense for you, and sharing it with the world via Field Notes Friday.
You know it’s been busy if I’ve missed two Field Notes Fridays in a row! But it’s been a good Spring busy-ness. I crave a job that embraces the changing seasons and helps me feel connected to earth’s cycles… and I have it! Spring is as busy for an educator/interpreter as it is for the bees and birds. And mammals. And butterflies. And caterpillars.
Yep, caterpillars. Some gardeners hate ‘em, most butterfly lovers love ‘em, and most people find them at least interesting, if not downright fascinating. My latest experience with caterpillars was not only fascinating, it was inspiring. And, frankly, a little weird.
I was participating in another Survival Skills weekend led by Mark Suter of Primitive Texas at LLELA (the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area). Throughout the weekend, we noticed caterpillars on our backpacks, on our shoulders, on the ground around us… there were always several within view any time. They seemed to be everywhere. We tried not to kill any, but I’m pretty sure I rolled over one in my sleep. They were cute – a little bit fuzzy, pleasantly colorful, and with interesting behavior, if you took the time to watch.
And taking the time to watch came naturally. All of us made observations – this caterpillar was climbing, that one seemed to be sleeping, this one was reaching for branches, this one seemed to be jerking or dancing, oh, look, there’s another one on your sleeve – we were observing insect behavior without even intending to. We were immersed in wilderness, working on skills previous generations needed for survival (making rope and fire, finding resources), and it gave us time to connect to the biological richness around us without even trying.
I’m sure wonder and bemusement turned to mild annoyance for some. Trying not to harm caterpillars that come out of nowhere is taxing. Did I say out of nowhere? They seemed to be raining from the sky. Actually, on the final day, when Mark and I sat in the warm dappled shade working on hand-drill fire technique and yucca basket-weaving, we figured out they were falling on us. Perhaps from “Grandmother Bur Oak,” as Mark dubbed the tree shading our beautiful shelter. We could hear the soft pat….. pat as they fell into the thick leaf litter around us and began what I assume is the next chapter of their lives.
The sound of caterpillars. The sight of them dancing. The feel of them tickling your arm as they walk. We experienced caterpillars with multiple senses (but not with taste or smell, thank goodness). Because of these mental connections, we’ll never forget these little creatures.
Experiences like this usually inspire curiosity, as they did in me. What in the world species is this? Why are they falling on us? Do they sleep? What butterfly or moth will they become? I’ll let you enjoy the curiosity and questions a little while, as I did. Answers (and inspiration) coming soon…
(And here’s a treat. At least, I enjoyed it: A relaxing 30 second video looking up at Grandmother Bur Oak)
Come on, admit it: when you’re good, you’re good. You’ve been improving. I’ve been improving. Lets celebrate it!
What brought on this magnanimous and self-congratulatory mood? A simple glance, an outside dining experience, and comparing my abilities and knowledge of only a few years ago with today.
The weather is solidly, blessedly Spring-like today: warm, sunny, with those cumulus clouds that pop up like evenly-spaced cotton balls on a summer day. Of course, I wanted to eat outside when I went to a restaurant.
Halfway through my meal on a shady patio, I glanced unthinkingly around. My eyes flicked past chairs, trees, signs. As if I were the Terminator of Tree Identification, the species names of the two trees I’d barely noticed jumped out at me. It was so fast it wasn’t like a thought process; it was like knowing. in a glance and seemingly without thought, I had identified two trees.
That’s special enough. That’s worth celebrating. But here’s where the comparison gets me exuberant.
When I first saw those trees several years ago, I didn’t even know they were different species, let alone different organisms.
It took me many return visits before I got curious about their bark, their leaves. I hypothesized they were different individuals, but I had no clue what species or how to find out.
Across a span of several years, without concentrating on the effort, I ran into these trees’ relatives in urban and wild settings. I was around other naturalists, interpreters, citizen foresters, and ecologists who confirmed their identity. And then, I started recognizing them. On my own. I’d see the species, and after a few moments’ inspection, mentally categorize them. Applied knowledge.
So being able, after only a few years, without cogitation, to know a species at a glance, and from such a slender view and at a distance, is like suddenly realizing you can speak a second language. I am ecstatic. A richness is opening up to me as I learn about the life all around me.
How are you improving? What skills or knowledge are you gaining that you can celebrate RIGHT NOW? All of life is a journey, a process – don’t wait for perfection to enjoy the application of your knowledge and skills. Perfection will never come, but improvement can be a constant source of joy.