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Posts Tagged ‘Allegheny Mound Ant’

Though almost all the leaves have fallen from the trees the various brambles have hung on to theirs as the usually do. This blackberry plant’s leaves were a pleasing reddish bronze / brown. Some brambles like dewberry turn a beautiful deep purple color and hold onto their leaves all winter but blackberries and raspberries will lose theirs.

When I first found this odd little thing I wasn’t even sure if it was a fungus or a lichen. It grew on soil (I thought) so I guessed right when I guessed fungus but I still had a hard time identifying it. It turned out to be the pinecone tooth (Auriscalpium vulgare,) which is a little mushroom that grows on pinecones. Since the pinecone this one grew on was buried in the soil, I thought it was growing in soil.

The underside of the cap on the pinecone tooth fungus is toothed, and that’s where that part of its common name comes from. The cap is about the size of an M&M candy (.53”) and is off center so in this view it looks heart shaped. On young examples the teeth are white. They darken to brown with age so this example was somewhere in between.

A good identifying feature of the pinecone tooth is its hairy cap and stem. I can’t think of another mushroom like it. This mushroom grows only on white pine (Pinus strobus) and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) cones.

Brittle cinder fungus (Kretzschmaria deusta) looks like a shiny lump of coal someone stuck to a tree. Though I’ve only seen this fungus on standing dead trees and logs it will attack live trees and is said to be aggressive. Once it gets into a wound on the tree’s roots or trunk it begins to break down the cellulose and lignin and causes soft rot. The tree is then doomed, though it may live on for a few to even several more years.

The shiny, hard outer coating on brittle cinder fungus is indeed brittle. I just touched this example with my finger and the hard outer shell fell off, exposing the spore mass within. These spores will ride the wind to other trees and if conditions are right, will infect them as well. It’s a silent unseen drama that goes on day after day, year after year.

It’s hard to believe that the brittle cinder fungus we saw in the two previous photos started life as a beautiful gray and white crust-like fungus in the spring, but that’s how they begin. You can see the lumpiness already starting in this example, which I found on a log on a rainy day in June of 2014.

I’m still seeing lots of colorful turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor.) These examples had a lot of orange in them.

For years I’ve tried to find an answer to why turkey tails have so many different colors. Is it the minerals in the soil? The type of wood they grow on? From what I’ve read, there is no answer to why this or any other mushroom displays the colors it does. It seems that they’re colorful simply to be beautiful, and that’s fine with me because I enjoy seeing them. They brighten a gray winter day.

The dry husks of American hazelnuts (Corylus americana) have a cavern in them where the nut was and this makes a good winter home for spiders and other insects. It’s hard to see but the opening of this one had spider webs across it, as many do. I like to see the colors and movement in these empty husks.

There were still hazel nuts in these husks. In 1995 a large shallow pit in Scotland was found to be full of the remains of thousands of burned hazelnut shells and was estimated to be 9,000 years old, so man has been eating this nut for a very long time. In this country Native Americans used them to flavor soups, and also ground them into flour, most likely for thousands of years as well.

A young maple was healing a long frost crack; at about 6 feet one of the longest I’ve seen.  On sunny winter days the sun warms the tree’s bark and the cells in the wood just under the bark expand. If the nighttime temperature falls into the bitterly cold range the bark can cool and contract rapidly, but when the wood beneath the bark doesn’t cool as quickly this stress on the bark can cause it to crack.  On cold winter nights you can often hear what sounds like rifle shots off in the woods, but the sounds are really those made by cracking trees. They can be quite loud and often echo through the forest.

One day I received an email from a man in Europe who asked me if I could look at a detail of a 15th century painting and tell him if I thought the mark on a tree trunk was a frost crack. He had seen frost crack examples on this blog and was curious to know if that was what the artist had painted. The first thing I had to know was if the temperature dropped below freezing in the region that the painting was supposed to represent and he said yes, it got cold there. I then looked at the detail of the painting closely and noticed that flowers grew on the side of the tree with the scar. This told me that since most flowers need sunshine the sun most likely shined on that side of the tree, so you had cold winter nights and sunshine on the tree’s bark during the day; the two things needed to produce a frost crack. I told the man that if I had to bet on it, I’d bet that the scar was indeed a healed frost crack. You can see it there just above the most vertical white flower. What you see here is just a very small detail of the painting, enlarged several times. It had roads and medieval peasant farmers and castles and all kinds of interesting things in it.

At this time of year when the sun is low in the sky it makes things glow, like it did to these virgin’s bower seed heads (Clematis virginiana) one recent sunny day.

The seed head was in silhouette in the midst of shining, feathery sunshine.

Virgin’s bower seeds (achenes) are also hairy with a long hairy tail called a style. This native clematis has panicles of small white flowers in the fall. The foliage is toxic so it isn’t eaten by animals, but early settlers used parts of the vines as a pepper substitute. Native Americans used it to treat migraine headaches and nervous disorders, and herbalists still use it to treat those same illnesses today.

Staghorn sumac stems (Rhus typhina) also glowed in the sunshine, and so did the buds. These buds are naked with no bud scales, so it is up to the hairs to protect them from the cold. Grinding the berries of staghorn sumac produces a purple colored, lemon flavored spice that is very popular in some countries. Another name for this native shrub is not surprisingly, velvet tree.

I’m forever seeing things that make me wonder how I could have possibly walked through these woods for 50 years and not seen them, and this is one of those. It was cone shaped, about two feet in diameter, made of soft sand, and stood about shin high. At first I thought it was some kind of termite mound but a little research showed it was made by ants. Specifically, field ants, which I’ve never heard of.

There were many of these mounds along the sunny side of a road, some quite big. I’ve read that the most likely builder is an ant named Formica exsectoides, also called wood ant, mound ant, thatching ant, and Allegheny field ant. These ants secrete formic acid and can squirt the acid several feet when alarmed. They use the acid to kill tree seedlings and any other plants that would grow around the mound and shade it from the sun. They do this because the mound acts as a solar collector for incubating eggs and larvae. In winter workers and queens move deep into the mounds to hibernate.

A deer walked through this ant mound, showing how soft the course sand and thatch material is. Thousands of ants can live in a single mound, so there were many hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of them in what was quite a large area. The mounds take many years and many ants to build, so the larger ones can apparently be quite old. It’s amazing what nature will teach you if you’re open to learning.

One recent day during the fall leaf cleanup I was blowing leaves and something caught my eye. I thought it was an earth worm at first but it turned out to be a small salamander, stuck to a leaf and frozen solid. Or so I thought; salamanders have a kind of sugar syrup antifreeze in them that keep their tissues and organs safe in the cold. It also keeps their cells from dehydrating as they stop breathing and their heart stops beating. They survive in this suspended animation state all winter long until the warm spring rains revive them. I put this one back where it had come from to sleep on until spring.

Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you. ~Freeman Patterson

Thanks for coming by.

 

 

 

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