It is easy to think that for fabulous, bite-you-in-the-nose, natural history, you have to go to the tropics. Not true! As a response to the covid pandemic, so many of us are spending more time outside in gardens and neighborhood parks. I have been posting (mostly on twitter, @anuragasclepias) some finds such as these two organisms below in and around Ithaca
Yet, I stumbled on the most spectacular find of the season when I was out with my Field Ecology class at Cornell last week. Now in the second week of classes, this is one of the few “in person” courses being offered in Ecology and Evolution this semester. Lucky for me, I am the instructor and the class revolves around a 4-hour field exercise every Friday
Last week, while exploring a wooded stream habitat in east Ithaca, the graduate teaching assistant in the class noticed a thick mucusy blob on an alder tree (in the birch family). Alders are fascinating for several reasons, there are a few local species (including introduced European Alder), they have a mutualistic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria (Frankia, an independent origin of a similar relationship between legumes and rhizobial bacteria, the latter of which fixes atmospheric nitrogen in exchange for plant-fixed carbon). Alders are also monecious, meaning that they have separate male and female reproductive parts (in Alders, called catkins) as seen below. Out of fear that the mucus was actually mucus, we initially left it alone. When I can back two days later, I saw two other loogies, so I decided to dig in. I was rewarded with a juvenile frog hopper (probably Aphrophora alni, the European alder spittle bug). These spittle bugs feel on plant xylem, perhaps the most nutrient-poor plant substance. Conventional entomological wisdom is that xylem-eating insects need to process so much xylem that they excrete a massive amount of frass (insect poop). Perhaps they made an evolutionary jump from simply having extra frass to living in a frothy protective bubble.
In any case, finding the mucus caused me to notice white waxy clusters on the Alder stems. And looking a bit further revealed the Woolly Alder Aphid, Prociphilus tessallatus
I decided to investigate other alder trees along the edge of the stream and, much more surprising, I noticed a butterfly circling around the aphid colonies. When it tried to land, ants chased it away! Looking deeper I found the following: Feniseca tarquinius, the harvester, in the family Lycaenidae, and the only North American carnivorous butterfly (okay, there might be a second, see below)
Carnivory is very rare among the Lepidoptera… certainly much less than 1% of all butterflies and moths, although it has evolved several times. Of course, the lion’s share of caterpillars eat leaves, and the shift to meat requires various evolutionary changes. On Hawaii, there is even a sit-and-wait predatory moth larvae. On continental North America, the only other potentially carnivorous caterpillar is the cherry gall azure, Celastrina serotina, a newly described species and another member of the Lycaenidae. I found this species a few years ago… it feeds on the galls on cherry trees created by eriophyid mites! What makes its status as a carnivore unclear is that although it eats the “gall” it is unclear to what extent it needs/eats the mite inside
Fall is also a great time for slug caterpillars. Happy hunting!