Smoky Mountain Insects

Oh wow, it’s been a month since I last posted anything.  Whoops!  Can only say that it’s been a REALLY busy month and work with a lot of long hours and evening programs. But things slow down for a little while and that means I have the time and energy to blog!

Last weekend I went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and helped one of my coworkers lead an educator trek.  At the museum where I work, educator treks are open to formal and informal educators (people who work at museums, zoos, environmental education centers, and the like) and take them out into the field for one to seven days to learn about nature and science firsthand.  For this particular three-day trip, we spent a day at the facility at Purchase Knob learning from the rangers about citizen science efforts that are being done at the park and getting some hands on experience.  It’s a spectacularly beautiful place:

We looked at the status of a bunch of trees for the Nature’s Notebook project and did a leaf litter arthropod study that the park oversees.  The latter involved putting leaf litter into a shaker box, shaking it vigorously, and then using an aspirator (also known as a pooter or, as our ranger calls them, “suckie upper thingies”) to transfer any animals to a vial for examination back in the classroom.  It was fun watching the teachers respond to the insects they caught once they were projected onto a big screen with a video microscope:

In the afternoon, we walked a very long way down a very steep mountain to get to a stream to check for salamanders along some transect lines the park has set up in the area.  I know next to nothing about salamanders, but apparently the pygmy salamanders we saw are very interesting and we saw 7 species altogether.  As the last group finished measuring the salamanders they’d caught and recorded their data, the rest of the group wandered down to the stream to look for more salamanders.  Now I love salamanders, but you all know I’m much more into stream insects than anything with  a backbone.  We found a bunch of flat-headed mayflies clinging to rocks and someone brought over this stonefly:


I think it’s a perlodid stonefly, but honestly I didn’t look at the mouthparts because I was partly in charge of the group.  One of the teachers was looking for salamanders in a little puddle between a big rock and the shore and found one of these:

A roach-like stonefly!!!  I did a little happy stonefly dance and may have yelled a little as I tried to get everyone else excited about it.  Sadly, most of the group was much more interested in the salamanders to care about this amazing stonefly, but it didn’t diminish my excitement over it.  The same teacher found another one too.  I’ve seen specimens, but never a live one, so it was very, very exciting for me.  It’s hard to describe the joy you get from seeing something in the wild that you’ve been hoping to see for a while. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.

After the long trek back up the hill, we went on a wildflower hike.  The Smokies are known for their amazing wildflowers and there were many species in bloom.  We had the group do some nature journaling so they could just sit and look at the flowers for a while. Totally by accident, the trillium that I chose to sketch had insects on it:

Two longhorn beetles that ended up getting frisky as I drew my flower and a teenie, tiny caterpillar was starting to make a tiny hole in the petal when I left.  Insects always improve flowers as far as I’m concerned, even one as awesome as a trillium.

It had apparently been unusually dry in the Smokies for a while, but it rained hard our second night there.  We went to Cataloochee Valley the last day to hike a bit, look for elk, and learn about human impacts in Great Smoky and everything smelled clean and bright.  When we arrived back at the vans, we were treated to a HUGE group of butterflies puddling in the damp dirt:

This photo doesn’t even begin to do justice to the number of swallowtails in the area!  I suspect that because it had been dry for a relatively long time, the butterflies may have been hard up for the salts and minerals that they usually suck out of the soil when they “puddle.”  Dry weather means dry soils and limited puddling opportunities, but the rain seems to have brought the butterflies out in force.  I have never seen so many large butterflies in one place at one time in the wild and they were swirling all around us.  It was amazing!  One of the teachers wandered off a bit and came across this:

That’s a big bunch of butterflies on a big pile of scat, happily sucking nutrients from the wet surface.  If you look closely, you’ll also see a burying beetle.  The butterflies were doing a pretty good job keeping it away from the scat as they fed, so at one point it climbed right over the top of their wings in an unsuccessful attempt to find a place where it could feed also.  The beetle made the whole amazing butterfly experience even better!

Even though I was with a group and didn’t get to spend nearly as much time poking around for insects as I would have if left to myself, the whole trip was just fabulous. The teachers we had with use were amazing and very excited to get out into the mountains and we saw a lot of really excellent wildlife.  The insects were just a happy bonus!  But they make me want to go back and explore more.  Planning another trip there this summer!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

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