Sunday, August 19, 2012

My very own (false) earthstar...

So I was wandering through my garden when I noticed this lovely mushroom that got me really excited.  At the time I thought it was an earthstar mushroom, which are my favorite mushrooms.  Yes, I do have a favorite mushroom...

Earthstars start out as a round ball.  When they are ripe the outer layers peel back and the inner chamber releases spores.  After observing it for a couple of days, I realized that this was not an earthstar mushroom, but a false earthstar mushroom.  I had not known false earthstars existed until I did a little online research trying to pin down exactly which earthstar it could be.  I was a little crushed until I realized that false earthstars were even cooler then earthstars, and they became my new favorite mushroom.

What distinguishes the false earthstar from an earthstar?  Well, mycologists separate them based on the thin chamber walls inside the area where the spores are developed, the nature of the split in the spore sac, the absence of sterile tissue at the base of the spore sac, and the size of the spores themselves.  

Perhaps the easiest way to differentiate them (and what makes them so cool) is the hygroscopic properties of the outer 'sun-like' rays.  This special property means that when moisture is present in the air, the rays absorb it and uncurl.  This pushes the spore sac up in the air, so that spores are dispersed farther in the correct (moisture-rich) conditions.  When the air is dry, the rays 'dry out' and curl up to protect the center of the spore sac.  Few 'true' earthstars have this property.  What a neat thing to find in my backyard!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Homosassa springs wildlife state park

Homosassa Springs is not your typical state park.  Unlike most state parks there are very few hiking trails... but there are a lot of animals.  Homosassa serves more as a nature center, where they accept injured animals that cannot be released back into the wild and display them.  So most of the animals there are native to the florida region.

They had reptiles and mammals; like alligators, snakes, red foxes, cougars, and bobcats.

They also had a variety of birds, including several species of owls and hawks.  They had just opened a new exhibit, a walk-in aviary, when we went.  This exhibit featured many shorebirds like ospreys, herons, and my new obsession, the spoonbill.  This was very much my favorite part of the park.

The start of the Homosassa river was located on the grounds of the park, a lovely spring which turned the waters all shades of blue and green and kept the water temperatures at 72 degrees (22 degrees Celsius) year round.

Of course, the park's most notable residents were found in the spring... the manatees.  These manatees were non-releasable, and so could not swim out of their paddock, but plenty of their wild relatives can be seen in the lower river and near-by Crystal River, especially during the winter.

Not all of the wildlife was there to be rehabilitated.  Some of them were just there to pick up some free food.  This Great Blue Heron joined the pelicans for feeding time, and then promptly flew off.

There were almost hourly talks being given at various spots in the park, so there was always something to check out.  For the most part, the talks were interesting and informative, and tended to coincide with feeding time for that particular animal.  My one regret was the very last talk we went to, where the presenter didn't show proper respect for the baby alligator he was handling.  That was very distressing to watch, but may be a bug for that particular presenter and not the others as a whole.

So, if you're looking for a place to go hiking and possibly get a glimpse of animals in the wild, Homosassa may not be the place for you. But if you're in the mood for a zoo-like atmosphere and a chance to see some of the native animals up close and personal, this is a good place to go.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Florida Caverns State Park

Today we went to visit the Florida Cavern State Park.  It is home to one of the only "tour caves" in the Florida.  To be honest, after being at Carlsbad, I was not expecting much.  Perhaps a small cave with one or two formation.  I was pleasantly surprised at what I got though.  The tour lasted ~45 minutes more or less, and we went through at least 6 "rooms".  In each was a wide array of formations, all the ones I love...  Columns, draperies, soda straws, etc. 

The waterfall room

Some draperies in the entrance room

The caves themselves were full of interesting reminders of Florida's geological history.  The ceilings in most of the rooms boosted tons of fossils; mostly clam shells, but our guide pointed out a shark tooth and a nautiliod shell.

Sea urchin test and clam shell on the cave ceilings

We also were lucky enough to see some cave life, including a bat.  After the cave tour there was still plenty to see, so we went off on one of the most recommended hikes, the flood plain/ tunnel trail.  It was interesting to see the different habitats in the area.  Just outside the cave exit, the cool cave air allowed for these liverworts and mosses the thrive.

A snail active at noon, made possible by cool air blowing out of the cave

There were pockets of limestone and mini cave openings everywhere, but the flatter parts (the flood plains) had all the hallmarks of a cypress swamp.  There were columbine plants everywhere, and I made a resolution to come back in the spring to see all the wildflowers blooming.  From the pictures in the visitor center, it looks amazing!

On the bluffs, it's all hardwood forest

There was also a lot of wildlife.   Being Florida, a lot of it was bugs.  We saw beetles, golden orb weaver spiders, golden silk spider (BIG), spiny orb weavers, and a new one for me, harvestman.  As a matter of fact, when I stopped to take a picture of a beetle, a cool-looking true bug landed on me.  There were tons of butterflies near the flower field in front of the visitor center.  I counted at least four different species in five minutes.


There was also some reptiles out and about, including a bunch of five-lined skink young.  There were a couple of adults out as well, but they aren't as colorful.

This little one caught a bug

All and all a must see stop in the North Florida region... Like most state parks, getting in is fairly reasonable, $5.00 for a car of up to 8.  The cave tour itself costs extra, but at $8.00 for an adult, it is still pretty modest.  I will be going back again, for sure!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Jumping spiders

This is a woodland jumping spider, Thiodina sylvana.  They are members of the family Salticidae, which contains all of the jumping spiders and is the largest spider family.  Like all spiders, these little guy have eight eyes, but their eye arrangement is slightly different then other spiders.  Their eyes are in a single row around their head, with two large eyes right in the middle.  Those eyes have a movable retina, and are able to focus very well, but have a very narrow field of view.  They also posses 4 different photoreceptive layers which each focus at a slightly different plane.  By comparing the focus of the different colors against the perfectly-focused deep layer, they can get a sense of how far an object is away from them [1].

They use this knowledge to stalk their prey and jump out at them.  As their name implies they are superb jumpers and can jump up to 30 times their body length.  That would be like a human jumping 180 feet (or 54 meters)!  They often attach a dragline before jumping, just in case they miscalculate.

This spider is preparing to jump up to the leaf above it.
They also have a fairly complex courtship, with males displaying different colors on their body, including UV patches, and producing sounds to entice the female to mate with them [2.3].  Several sources seem to imply that there is a color-based sexual dimorphism in this species, with the females being lighter in color then the males.

Male woodland jumping spider?
Since these pictures were taken on the same plant, and the lighter markings were the same, I'm inclined to agree that this was a male female pairing.  Enjoy some video of these guys in acton... and in the second clip, look for the dragline as the male jumps down stalks his prey.