I had a great day of naturalizing in the forests around the University of Toronto – Mississauga campus.

Perhaps most exciting is this fly:

20140413-7Some insect ID gurus on twitter (@BioInFocus @stho002) thought this fly was in the genus Aulacigaster, part of the Aulacigastridae, a very unique and species-poor fly family. Many sources say there are less that 20 species in the family, but @ta_wheeler pointed out many species have been described recently, see this revision of Aulacigaster which now has 55 described species.  According to BugGuide: “Adults of Aulacigaster are found at slime fluxes and wounds of deciduous trees, where the larvae are also found”. Guess where I found this fly? On the wound of a deciduous tree! So seems very likely that ID is right. So cool. Here is a dorsal shot with the tree wound visible.

I also found some nifty vertebrates.

20140413-6This is a jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum). This species is rare in Ontario. It also has some really interesting genetics involving hybridization and polyploidy. Lots about it here. The larvae of a closely related species (the spotted salamander) has a symbiotic relationship with algae, meaning it can photosynthesize, the first vertebrate found to do so! Maybe Jefferson salamanders can too?

Today was also the first day this year I saw snakes, and two species even.

20140413-3Dekay’s brownsnake (Storeria dekayi) – lots of natural history info here.

20140413-4Common gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) – natural history info here.

Here are some other nifty insects I found today:

20140413-5Do you see the insect? It is a tiny moth that is incredibly cryptic on tree bark.

20140413-8I found this cryptic insect in the leaf litter. It looks like a leafhopper nymph to me.

With my head down looking for insects I stumbled right into an entire family of resting deer laying on the forest floor chewing their cud. The deer here on campus are very habituated to people and these ones only stood up when I got about 5 m away. They eventually laid back down and let me get even closer to get this photo:

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Last weekend our lab took a retreat to Algonquin Provincial Park, the oldest and one of the largest (> 7,500 sq. km.) Provincial Park in Canada.  After a 4 hour drive North from Toronto and we arrived at the Wildlife Research Station where we stayed in a delightful cabin adjacent to a lake. The lake, however, was completely frozen over and there was still about 2 m of snow! So while technically spring had begun, it was still pretty wintery up there. We spend nearly all the daylight hours snowshoeing around and naturalizing—the land was not exactly bustling with life but nature, as always, did not disappoint. Here are some photos of what we found.

20140328-8This was the first animal we found when we stepped out into the snow. An amazing phenomena! In some places our footsteps were quickly stained black with these little creatures.

20140328-7They are commonly referred to as snow fleas (Hypogastrura sp.), but they are not fleas of course, but rather Collembola, a group of arthropods sister to insects. Like most Collembola, they rocket away when disturbed using a spring loaded appendage (hence the common name springtails) on the undersides of their body called a furcula. They can survive on the snow, an impossible feat for most arthropods, partially because of a completely unique antifreeze protein which has been studied quite extensively.

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Lichens flourish in the winter extremes—many tree branches are covered in communities of multiple species.

20140329-37Fungi are of course always presento too, especially the hardened fruiting bodies of shelf fungi.

20140329-32We all went snowshoeing out across a frozen lake. Here in the foreground is a stump with what I assume are longhorn beetle exit holes, plus there are some familiar large mammals in the background.

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We made our way into the forest where there was some more life around:

20140329-35like this adorable little patch of moss on a tree branch,

20140329-34and this friendly grey jay. In winter gray jays seek out humans knowing they are a good source of easy food.  The nuts we threw on the ground were quickly snatched up and hid away for later.

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I got pretty into photographing the textures of tree bark—a great source of biologically rich colors and shapes in landscapes that can otherwise seem somewhat bleak. This is a paper birch (Betula papyrifera).

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I am pretty sure this is a striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum).

20140329-38These are the exposed buds of hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides).

Along our travels we saw signs of several other vertebrates including huge excavations in tree trunks from one of my all time favorite birds, pileated woodpecker, the food debris piles of squirrels, and the scat of wolves and moose. It is a bit of a haunting experience walking through a forest where you known wolves are prowling…

20140331 boreal chickadeeFinally, I saw a new bird species that I was super excited about. I was not able to get a photo so I made a drawing instead. It’s a boreal chickadee!

Winter in Canada is pretty good at making you miss all the aspects of nature that you enjoy because, chances are, those living things you love are dead, dormant, or delocalized. (So, I was just trying to keep the alliteration going there, but by delocalized I mean they have cleverly migrated somewhere warmer, I often wonder why we don’t do the same.) This sense of longing has a silver lining, I think, because it illuminates what aspects of nature you may have taken for granted, and also encourages you to look closely for living things. To give attention to organisms you might, in more plentiful seasons, pass over for something more exciting, or to notice biological shapes and textures you’ve never studied closely before. In other words, this desolate setting reinvigorates the quest for life and beauty.

Luckily, the days are getting longer and there are hints of warmth, on some days… Life is responding and the quest is getting easier. I am quite happy for that.  Today I went for a walk with a friend at Grindstone Creek in Hamilton, Ontario. Birds were out in abundance, like the first migratory species to arrive, red-winged blackbirds. The complex squawks of males drifted over the flowing water that was frozen solid just days ago. Males are here early to stake out a territory for when the females eventually arrive. Many of the resident birds were active and noisy too.

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A female northern cardinal. Some of the bright red males were belting out their complex lazer-like songs nearby. I personally like the look of the females better, but maybe that is just because folks get excited by the garish males and overlook the comparatively reserved females. Feminism spilling over into natural history perhaps?

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At this park lots of people feed the birds and they have become quite friendly. It is an endearing interaction between humans and wildlife, I think. This is a white-breasted nuthatch.

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To my surprise the downy woodpeckers were unafraid of humans as well. They are so cute!  [The background on this photo was washed out and distracting so I made the shot black-and-white and whited out the background]

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Black-capped chickadees were ever curious and would gladly snag food from human hands. When adorable birds were not capturing my attention I looked for some more subtle beauty.

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This park had some quite large trees for Southern Ontario. Tree bark, especially on large trees, often has delightful and complex textures. I’m not sure sure what species the first tree is actually, without leaves large trees are hard to identify. The second shot is a paper birch.

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The dried husks of summer’s productivity are often sources of beautiful shapes and symmetry, like this burdock fruit.

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Many fungi are always present, like these little shelves slowly decomposing a downed tree.

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It was nice to see a cute little mammal, an eastern chipmunk. They hibernate over the winter, but because of their small size they cannot pack on enough fat stores to survive, so they stock their burrows with food to keep them going. Winter is still with us so I bet this chipmunk is just taking advantage of the few slightly warmer days to top up its reserves that were probably fully depleted over the long winter.

As you can see, today’s quest for life and beauty was quite successful. No need to wait for the full arrival of spring, life marches on through this still-frigid month. I encourage you to give some of your attention to all those organisms struggling through the cold, find some natural beauty before spring brings it on in waves.

Yesterday I was teaching a class on aspects of insect morphology and we had live migratory locust (Locusta migratoria) to play with. Here are some close up photos I took:

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Femoral-tibial leg joint where stored energy is released with an explosive jump!

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Compound eye and antenna

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Big powerful mandibles for chomping grass.

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Side of thorax and abdomen, notice the spiracle at the bottom for gas exchange.

For anyone curious, the blue and green background was a nitrile glove and grass blades :)

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This is not of a single flower, but an inflorescence, or a bunch of individuals flowers all crammed together. This plant is in the sunflower family (also called the Asteraceae) and most species in this family (all greater 20,000 of them!) have flowers more or less like this. The green bits in the middle are individual flowers (called disc florets) that have not opened yet. Further out are open flowers with small red petals and sexy anthers covered in pollen.  The flowers around the very edge are called ray florets, they are otherwise basically the same as disc florets except they have a single large, in this case, yellow petal. These ray florets give the flower the distinctive ‘sunflower’ look and provide the illusion of this being just a single flower, but like so many things in nature, close inspection reveals greater complexity.

Time for a chronological romp through my favorite photos of the year. The first shots come from a trip I took with my Dad up to Kawartha Highlands, Ontario.

Ontario

20130630This was the view from right near the rustic cabin we stayed in.

20130629-3A stop along our paddle.

20130701-4Prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)

Mexico

I took a vacation to Mexico where I meet up with friends Diego and Mariana who were kind enough to show me around their beautiful country.

20130717We visited Las Pozas, a surrealist art project build into the rainforest.

20130718We paddled up a river, well the guides paddled up the river, to this stunning waterfall named Cascada Tamul.

20130721One of my favorite parts of the trip was our boat ride through a mangrove.

20130722-2Sunset on the way back to Mexico City.

20130725-3Yucca in Mexico City

Belize

I attended a Bugshot macro photography workshop in Belize!  It was absolutely incredible and my photography skills improved greatly. Here are a few of my favorite shots from the trip, lots more posted on my flickr account.

20130922-29Barnes’ metalmark (Detritivora barnesi)

20130929-13A horsefly

20130925-17Wandering spider

20130926-25Tigerwing (Mechanitis polymnia)
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Looks like a cross between a wasp and a mantis but it’s neither. It’s a mantispid.

20130929-14Potato leaf beetle (Leptinotarsa undecemlineata)

20130926-24Leaf mimicking katydid

20130927-22Metallic leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae), possibly Colapsis sanjoseana

20130925-18Late addition: A pleasing fungus beetle (Family Erotylidae). I think this might be my favorite shot of the year.

Ontario

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Rough woodlouse (Porcellio scaber), I wrote lots more about this here.

20131103-6Bark louse in the order Psocodea that I found on a leaf on a sidewalk in Toronto.

20131016-13Dekay’s brownsnake (Storeria dekayi)

Found on dead elm treeGills of a fungus I found on a dead elm tree, the species is Hypsizygus ulmarius.

Urophora carduiCanada thistle gall fly (Urophora cardui), more on this here.

Arizona

I took a trip to Arizona over the holidays to visit my Mom and Brother.

20131219-7My brother found this fly in the dog’s water dish :)

20131219-6Teddy-bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) glowing in the sun

20131220-4Late day light from my Mom’s place in the high desert, Chino Valley AZ.

20131224-7Granite Basin Lake with Granite Mountain in the background, near Prescott AZ.

20131221-5Grass head. This species is very common in the high desert but only some of them make this perfect circle.

20131224-6Bear grass sunset

20131227-10A convincing leaf mimicking katydid (possibly Microcentrum rhombifolium) I found in a wash in Phoenix.

Shamrock

Yes, Shamrock gets her own category.

20131231-3Took this photo just in time, on new years eve. Gosh she’s cute.

Merry new years y’all.