Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Dung Beetle

While hiking today we came across a very interesting sight...a dung beetle.

In the middle of the trail a coyote or fox had left a deposit as they often do to mark their territory. Canines often defecate where it can be seen and smelled so that other canines will recognize the marked territory of the depositor.

In this case several dung beetles had found the treasure and had begun to break it down and form it into little balls that they could then roll away to their den. The male dung beetle usually collects the dung, forms it into balls, and then rolls it home to the female. The beetle pushes the ball backwards by himself. If you see other beetles trying to move the same ball of dung they aren't helping, they are trying to steal someone else's ball of dung. The same thing happens in human society too.

Meanwhile the female has been busy digging a tunnel for her incoming ball of dung. Once rolled into the tunnel, she deposits her eggs into the mass so that the larva when they hatch will have a ready meal. The meal, which the adults eat as well, consists of undigested materials and microorganisms in the feces.

Dung beetles are important in nature because they break down and recycle the waste. Different species of beetles often specialize in different types of dung and not all species of dung beetles roll their food into balls. In addition to the "rollers" there are "tunnelers" and "dwellers". The tunnelers root under the pile and stay there to do their thing, while the dwellers just dive into the heap and live there.

Dung beetles can be very important in a cow pasture to keep it from being knee deep in cow patties and I have read that some developing countries import specific dung beetles so that they aren't overrun with human waste.

So there you have it...everything you always wanted to know about dung beetles.

Male Update

Well now, here is another tick update.

This time the picture is a male Lone Star Tick. The previous post showed a picture of a Female. The males are a little smaller and they don't have the white dot (or "star") that the female has. The size of this guy is about 1/8 inch long. To the naked eye the male Lone Star Tick mainly just looks dark brown. But if you look closely you can see some tiny white detail along the back edge of the shell.

Nancy found this little guy on her pants leg after a 4 mile hike today.
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Friday, April 11, 2008

Lone Star Tick

Here is a little update to the tick information that is published a few blog postings below.

This little girl (about 1/8 inch long) is a female Lone Star Tick that my neighbor Rudy contributed. Rudy found this tick crawling on his neck after standing in vegetation in the woods to take a picture of a friend's house that is under construction.

Lone Star ticks are named for the white dot on the back of the females. Males are slightly smaller and without the dot. The area behind the dot is the part that expands to the size of a grape when the tick fills up with a nice tasty meal of blood.

The Lone Star Tick is common in the Southeastern United States and it carries the bacterial species that causes Human Ehrlichiosis.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Best Rainbow ever.

As you may know, last year was a record drought year for many areas, especially the southeastern U.S.

The state of Georgia is even getting so crazy that they want to move the state line about a mile north so they can suck water out of the Tennessee River. They claim that the southern Tennessee state line was surveyed incorrectly a couple of hundred years ago. If Georgia got their way Chattanooga and part of Memphis would drop down into Georgia and Mississippi. Now I think we might give up Memphis without a fight, but the Tennessee River and Chattanooga are a different story. Tennessee Governor Bredesen announced that Tennessee will protect her borders and the mayor of Chattanooga sent the Georgia State Legislature some bottled water to get them through.

But the good news is that the southeast has been getting some nice rain the past week or so and more is predicted in the near future.

Yesterday we had a brief rain shower and as I was looking out the front window I noticed that the sun was shining very brightly while it was raining. I grabbed my camera and looked out the back to see if there was a rainbow. Wow! There was the best rainbow that I had ever seen. I have seen some nice rainbows and even several double rainbows but never any as big and bright as this one. It looks pretty good in the picture above but not nearly as good as it looked in person.

I could see exactly where the end was shining in the woods in the valley below my house but I didn't go looking for the pot of gold. I figured the odds were about the same as a lottery ticket.

April begins Chigger and Tick season

Ahh, April! Sweet spring! Everything beautiful is busting out…flowers, buds, green leaves and warm sunshine. But the warm sunshine that wakes up the beautiful flora also wakes up some unwelcome fauna. April is the beginning of chigger and tick season here in Tennessee (snakes too, but that is another subject).

Chiggers and Ticks are part of that 8-legged scientific class called Arachnida which includes scorpions, spiders, and mites. Almost all Arachnids are carnivores and they feed mostly on pre-digested meat….in some cases that means you. Arachnids are definitely not the most popular class of animals around. I will tell you a little of what you need to know about chiggers and ticks and I will also tell you how to keep from being their next meal. Listen carefully.

First chiggers! You probably have never seen chiggers; they are extremely tiny. Without a magnifying glass they are almost impossible to see even though they are yellow to red in color. Contrary to what most people think, they do not burrow into your skin; they pierce the skin with their mouthparts and inject digestive enzymes into skin cells which they then suck up. The itchy red spots that you get are caused by your reaction to their digestive juices. As you know, chiggers usually bite in your most tender thin skin areas such as under socks and under waistbands of underwear. The good news is that chiggers are not known to transmit any diseases to humans, but the bad news is that their bites can itch intensely for a week. (Chiggerex is by far best over the counter product that I have found to ease the itch- although nothing helps completely).

Chiggers live in thick vegetation and populations are sometimes very localized. One bush might be covered with chiggers while the one right beside it might have none. That is why two golfers can step inside the woods to look for a golf ball and one gets chigger bites and one doesn’t. To avoid chiggers stay out of tall grass or brushy vegetation, especially in damp shady areas. If you get in areas like this, assume that you are going to host a herd of chiggers.

Now about ticks! The two main kinds of ticks in Tennessee are the American Dog Tick and the Lone Star Tick. Both feed on humans. Ticks are not as itchy as chiggers, but they are far from harmless. Ticks can transmit several pretty serious diseases to humans including Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), Ehrlichiosis, Lyme disease, and even a few more.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is more common on the Cumberland Plateau than it is in the Rocky Mountains and only North Carolina and Oklahoma have more reported cases of RMSF than Tennessee. Symptoms of RMSF can include a spotty rash, headache, abdominal pain, fever, sensitivity to light, etc. It can be very serious but it can be treated with antibiotics…the earlier the better.

Ehrlichiosis is another serious tick borne disease found around here with symptoms of headache, chills, joint aches, nausea, vomiting, etc. It may also be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms of RMSF and Ehrlichiosis typically appear 3 to 21 days after a tick bite. Definitely see a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.

Lyme disease, although very serious in other parts of the country, is not as common around here. That doesn’t mean you can’t get it; it’s just less likely. I read somewhere that if you are diagnosed with Lyme disease in Tennessee you either got it in some other state or you need a second opinion.

OK, after all that serious and scary stuff, let’s get practical. Your chances of getting one of the bad tick transmitted diseases are very, very small. Be aware, but don’t lock yourself up in the house. Practice prevention. Avoid brushing again bushes and high grass where chiggers and ticks live. You probably won’t encounter any in your yard but if you are heading out into the thick stuff wear light colored clothing and long sleeves and tuck pants into your socks to help keep chiggers and ticks from your skin and to spot ticks before they get you. Use insect repellent like DEET on skin and Permethrin on clothes and shoes (read directions carefully). Plant based Lemon Eucalyptus is another repellent that I like.

When you get home, often a hot soapy shower with vigorous washcloth rubbing will dislodge most chiggers, since they are on your skin and not in it.

But, opposed to chiggers, ticks do burrow into your skin and suck your blood. After walking in possible tick habitat go home and check your body carefully for ticks. Both adult ticks (1/8 to 3/16 inches long) and nymphs (the size of a pinhead) feed on people. The small ones are very hard to spot but they can transmit all the same bad stuff as the adults. A number of sources say that ticks need 24 hours or more to transmit disease, so the sooner you remove any unwanted hitchhikers, the better. If one is attached to you, grasp it with tweezers as close to the skin as possible and slowly and carefully pull it out. All other methods (such as burning with a match, nail polish, etc.) are not recommended.

You can avoid most encounters with chiggers and ticks by first understanding where you might run into them, and by dressing properly and using insect repellent. Next shower and remove any chiggers and ticks when you get home and last, be aware of the symptoms of the diseases that ticks are known to carry.

April is a beautiful month. Get out and enjoy the sunshine. With a little knowledge and prevention you should be able to leave the little critters outside.