Thursday, July 10, 2014

Critter Huntin' With Chris (Day 2, SC 2014)

On the morning of our second day in South Carolina, we visited the farmer's market, and then the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History at the College of Charleston.  The museum was incredible, especially for a small college museum, and they had so much cool stuff that I am in the process of writing a Top Ten post just about the museum.  We will also feature lots of the pictures that I took there in future posts, as a lot of the fossils that they had there are animals that have popped up on the blog, and will likely continue to do so.  Now, though, I'm sure you all are being eaten up from the inside with questions.  "What did you do for the rest of the day, Zack, after you returned from the museum?  I'm sure it was something fascinating, no doubt!"  No doubt.
When we got back, Chris and I decided to go out critter hunting.  The Beckley's live next to a golf course with several small ponds fairly close by, and we decided to look into two of the closest ponds to see if we could find any gators (Alligator mississippiensis) or cottonmouth moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorous)!  In the first pond, we startled an anhinga (Anhinga anhinga), and it flew up into the trees.  The anhinga is a type of cormorant-like bird, and spends most of its days either swimming through freshwater in search of tasty fish, or sunning itself and preening on the bank.  They are not only very good at swimming underwater due to a reduced buoyancy created by heavy bones and wet feathers, but they are also very good at soaring and riding the thermals, similar in fashion to certain types of raptors.  Turns out, I would be seeing more of this interesting bird on our trip.
In Colorado, it is not altogether uncommon to spot a great blue heron (Ardea herodius) hunting along the banks of a pond or lake, or flying overhead with their impressively elongate neck drawn back in a tight s-curve, reminiscent of certain types of theropod dinosaurs (such as Compsognathus, pictured below).  However, in South Carolina, you can hardly go anywhere without seeing a heron, be it a great blue heron, an egret, or some other type of heron.  Right after spotting the anhinga, we noticed a great blue heron on the opposite bank.  In the picture below you can see the usually majestic bird caught in the not-so-majestic act of shaking itself dry.
A picture of a first generation cast of Compsognathus from the Solnhofen Quarry of Germany.  Although this animal almost certainly lived a very different lifestyle than the anhinga, it is interesting to compare the necks of these two animals.  You can also compare the anhinga's neck with the neck of another theropod dinosaur Coelophysis (who has a neck more similar to a heron's than that of Compsognathus) by clicking HERE to check out a short feature we did on this dinosaur awhile back.  This cast is a first generation cast in the collections of the Morrison Natural History Museum.
As we went around the pond, I got an opportunity to take a shot from much closer.  Check out how long that neck is!!  It always makes me think of other, extinct animals that are thought to be piscivorous, or fish eating.  The protorosaur reptile Tanystropheus, the long-necked plesiosaurs and nothosaurs, and many types of pterosaurs are all thought to be primarily piscivorous, based on studies of their dentition, anatomy, depositional environment, etc.  The long neck seen in many of these animals seems to be pretty similar to the long neck that I see in the great blue heron, which is a pretty good design for catching fish.  If you are trying to sneak up on something, the less of you the animal can see, the better!
The protorosaur Tanystropheus.  Photo Credit: Sam Lippincott
Inevitably, we got a little too close to the great blue heron, and it took off for the far side of the pond.  As it was flying away, almost out of sight, it got dive-bombed by a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)!  I thought that was kind of interesting.  It's relatively common place to see smaller birds attacking larger predatory birds like hawks or eagles, who potentially might bring them harm.  Apparently, great blues will also eat other birds, but I suspect that would be more of an opportunistic feeding opportunity, and not something the heron would purposely go out with the intention of catching.
As we continued our search, two more members of the heron family (family Ardeidae) graced us with their presence, the reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) and the great egret (Ardea alba).  I'd also like to point out that the egrets aren't really a natural grouping of birds, and is simply just one name, like heron, that is frequently attached to different members of the heron family, family Ardeidae.  For example, both the great blue heron and the great egret are in the same genus, the genus Ardea, while other herons and egrets are in different genera.  Kind of like how frogs and toads are all in the same family, the family Anura, but toads are generally characterized as having dry skin, while frogs are characterized as having wet skin.
The reddish egret.  It's a little tough to see, but the bird is flying roughly in the middle of the photograph, a little more on the left hand side.
The great egret.  It's a little tough to see, but the bird is flying a little below the middle of the photograph, and a tiny but further to the right of center.
With nothing but birds and turtles in the first pond, Chris and I headed over to the second.  The second pond was much more secluded, surrounded by more trees and bushes.  We couldn't really see anything in their either, but we skirted around the edge of the pond through the trees.  Suddenly, Chris spotted some bones a few feet to the right of us.  He had spotted the skeleton of South Carolina's state animal, and only resident species of deer, the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)!  This deer is actually the state animal of Illinois and Pennsylvania as well.
I'm definitely not an authority on such matters, but the teeth looked really sharp and not very worn down, so I was thinking maybe it was a younger animal.
The skeleton was pretty well articulated, with the front legs being the only major part of the body that was missing.
We moved on from the deer skeleton, and I promptly walked into a spider web.  Now, the thing about the spiders in South Carolina is that some of them grow nasty-big, and seem to have a propensity to spin their webs in between hip and head height for your average adult human.  I'm specifically talking about the banana spiders (Nephila sp.), or golden silk orb-weavers.  I'm not entirely sure how large the biggest banana spiders get, but I've seen ones that look like they have a leg span of three to four inches.  Disgusting.
Anyways, the one I walked into had spun a web at hip height.  Despite the fact that the web was between two ferns, I did not find the situation to be amusing in the slightest.  For a second, I thought I was going to be alright, and that maybe I had walked through a web without a spider in it.  But of course this was not the case, otherwise I would not be weaving you the tale of woe, much like this particular banana spider wove it's irritating web at hip height right in my path.  The spider started to stir, and crawl towards my crotch, which is one of the top two places that I don't want a spider to be, right after in my face holes.  I started moving my right hand, still holding my camera, away from my body to try and grab a stick to get it the heck off of me, when the spider started crawling up a line of web that it had somehow attached to my camera.  As I continually called out pitifully to Chris for help (he was probably laughing to hard at me to come and help even if he wanted to), the spider continually crawled toward my camera, which was in my hand, strung around my neck, and also several hundred dollars.  Too expensive to drop.  Right before the spider reached the camera, I was able to brush it off onto a nearby leaf.  Then, my desire to get a picture of the disgusting little arachnid overrode my other desire to get the heck out of there, so I was able to snap the picture that you can see above you.  Now you can understand the terror that I had to go through to get that picture.  Enjoy it.  Please.

Before we got out of the woods, I found a raccoon skull with both jaws nearby, as well as some other isolated bones.  I saved the skull, and hopefully I can remember to upload a picture later!  Raccoons are omnivorous, so they have fun teeth, an interesting combination of carnivorous and herbivorous dentition.

We also found a pair of what definitely looked like burrows.  We found lots of bones in the vicinity of the burrows, clearly from different animals, so I think it likely that they were created by a more carnivorous critter, likely a fox.  Gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) not only climb trees, but also don't seem to burrow under the ground, unlike the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), so if it is a little carnivorous mammal burrow, I think that the red fox is a good guess as to the den maker!
Chris also spotted a small crushed turtle shell which I also collected, and hopefully I will remember to upload a picture of that specimen, too!

On our way back to the house, I noticed an interesting flower that I later identified as the trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) which, according to the USDA, can cause itching, redness, and swelling amongst mammals if the leaves and flowers are touched.  Well, later on, I picked up a flower, and did not find that to be the case.  Perhaps I didn't touch it enough, or maybe different people experience different reactions.  I thought they were interesting because I noticed that the long, tubular flowers might be a perfect example of a type of flower that has coevolved (learn about coevolution HERE) with hummingbirds and butterflies, pollinators with the means of reaching nectar from deeper within a flower, and it looks like that might indeed be the case!  Interestingly, for the first half of the trip, I don't remember hearing or seeing a single hummingbird...odd.  The trumpet creeper is a member of the Bignonia family, the family Bignoniaceae.
After we returned to the house, I thought the excitement was temporarily over.  That turned out not to be the case, as I promptly realized my right leg was under an attack from a small arachnid: a tick.  Ticks, spiders, scorpions, and solfugids (amongst others) are all members of the class Arachnida.  I believe that the tick I had on my was an adult female lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum).  The adult female is the only one with the little white dot on her back, which was something that my tick had.  Again, disgusting.  Fortunately, I was able to brush the little bloodsucker off my leg before he could bite.  Jean Ann, Mary Sullivan and I then tried to kill it with our shoes, my laptop, Honey's dog bowl, and Kleenex, but nothing worked.  I eventually just crumpled it up as best I could in several Kleenex, and then shoved it in the trash.  Ticks are tough to kill, they seem pretty well armored, and they are pretty flat, too, which makes them tough to even brush off.

After a few hours of downtime, we went down to the beach as the sun set.  Didn't see much, except part of a molted horseshoe crab shell, the Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus).  Once they reach adulthood, horseshoe crabs shed their shells annually, usually in July or August.  Arthropods shed their shells, or exoskeletons, as they grow larger, kind of like how snakes will shed their skin as they grow larger.  Turns out, I would also be seeing a whole lot more of these later on, too!
After we got back from the beach, my father, sister and I all went gator hunting.  This was to be our first gator sighting of the trip, although we really couldn't see much.  The small reddish dot in the photograph below is actually the eyeshine of the gator, created by the reflective tapetum lucidum (read more about that interesting bit of eye anatomy by clicking HERE).  So we really couldn't see much unfortunately.
We also saw another American toad (Anaxyurus americanus), possibly the same one that I spotted the previous night!
So as of the second day, here's a faunal list of the animals that I've spotted and identified thus far.  I haven't identified really any of the plants, so I will just include plants that I've included on the blog.  Some of the animals on the list I didn't blog about, usually because I didn't get good pictures.


American Toad (Anaxyurus americanus)
Green Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea)
Southern Leopard Frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus)


Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga)
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
Great Egret (Ardea alba)
Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis)
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens)
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)


American Cockroach (Periplaneta americana)
Atlantic Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus)
Banana Spider (Nephila sp.)
Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum)
Squareback Marsh Crab (Armases cinereum)


Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)
Raccoon (Procyon lotor)
White Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)


Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans)


American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)

Works Cited
ACE Basin Species Gallery: Gray Fox. (n.d.). ACE Basin Species Gallery: Gray Fox. Retrieved July 10, 2014, from

Anhinga. (n.d.). , Identification, All About Birds. Retrieved July 10, 2014, from

BIGNONIACEAE. (n.d.). BIGNONIACEAE. Retrieved July 10, 2014, from

Lone star tick a concern, but not for Lyme disease. (2011, October 21). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved July 10, 2014, from

Molting. (n.d.). Natural History: Lifecycle-Embryonic Development. Retrieved July 10, 2014, from

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes). (n.d.). SCDNR. Retrieved July 10, 2014, from

Ticks. (n.d.). Types Of In South Carolina, Tick Bites And Tick Control. Retrieved July 10, 2014, from

Trumpet Creeper. (n.d.). . Retrieved July 10, 2014, from

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