Spanish Moss – Delightful Dangling Denizens of the South

Expansive live oaks dripping with spanish moss–a quintessential scene of the southeastern United States.

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides)

Contrary to the common name they are not actually a moss, rather a flowering plants in the Bromeliad family. They can reproduce from seed or by chunks moved by wind or birds, who use them for nest building. Their arboreal tangles provide important habitat for a wide diversity of arthropods including a highly specialized jumping spider which appears to only live in spanish moss.

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides)

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) live a pretty strange life style, for a plant. As “air plants” they spend their whole lives draped over tree branches far from anything resembling soil. So despite inhabiting only wet semi-tropical regions they are at serious risk of desiccation. To combat this they have a specialized water efficient form of photosynthesis called CAM Photosynthesis. This is the same trick that cacti use to conserve water. Up in the trees spanish moss must also find nutrients. Instead of having roots their long slender leaves are covered in scaly hairs that can absorb nutrients and water. Nutrients comes through rainwater and dust and also from the trees they inhabit. They are not stealers like parasitic mistletoe, rather, they soak up what washes out of tree bark and leaves. This source of nutrients is important enough that trees which leach few nutrients do not provide suitable habitat for spanish moss.

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides)

Spanish moss is also quite useful to humans. Up until the advent of synthetic fibers spanish moss was harvested from the ground after storms or directly from trees, then heaped into piles to decompose for a few weeks leaving just the dark elastic cords that make up the plants’ center. These were dried and cleaned, then used to stuff mattresses, car seats, or spun into rope, just to name a few uses. Spanish moss is also potentially useful as a simple way to monitor air pollution. Because they absorb particulates from the air which then accumulate in their tissues, measuring levels of toxic substances like Mercury in spanish moss may provide an accurate measure of air pollution in the area.

The South provides many natural history gems, but the ones hanging from the trees are among my favorites.

Photos taken on Sapelo Island, Georgia

Spring Is a Time of Firsts

The first unwavering stare from a reptile

Common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

The first butterfly

Comma (Polygonia c-album)

The first disappearing act

Comma (Polygonia c-album)

Comma (Polygonia c-album)

The first leaves reaching for the sun

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

And the first flowers calling out

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)


Species:

Common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

Comma (Polygonia c-album)

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)

All photos taken 25 April 2015 in the broadleaf forests of Nancy Moore Park in East Lansing, Michigan.

Weekend Arachnids

I found some nifty arachnids this weekend in East Lansing. First are a couple of fishing spiders:

fishing spider

fishing spider

These are two different individuals, not sure if they are the same species. Now an adorable jumping spider:

jumping spider

jumping spider

Finally, a velvet mite scampering around on a rotten log:

velvet mite

Signs of Spring

I went for a walk in the woods at Lake Lansing Park North

Life is just starting to return from the long winter

forest pond The salamanders are not around yet but I reckon they will be soon

20150321-17Fungi are always there, digesting and consuming

caterpillar eggs Malacosoma americanaAs soon as the weather warms these eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americana) will emerge to devour the leaves of this unfortunate cherry tree

mossThe mosses are growing skyward before the trees produce their leaves and shade them out

skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)Intrepid skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) make their own heat!
tree reflection pond leavesFrom some perspectives the trees already have leaves

They will soon

I’m excited

Beautiful Buds!

Winter is kind of sad, all my favorite photography subjects are either dead or dormant. But today it warmed up a bit and there was blue sky out so I found some beautiful subjects that are at their best in the winter, plants’ leaf buds! They are delightfully variable in shape and color among species, and many have quite a lot of character. Be sure to check leaf buds out next time you feel there is not much interesting out in nature to look at. 20150221-8cornus bud20150221-10Zanthoxylum americanum Common Prickly Ash20150221-1220150221-13