Pond Dwellers (Friday Five)

I’ve been spending a lot of time photographing aquatic insects recently.  I’ve been very busy at work, so I find it relaxing to sit and watch my little tank full of insects in the evenings, observing their behaviors and photographing them.  Next week I’ll share another developmental series like the snail series I posted last week, but in the interest of time as the day is almost over, today I’m going to simply share some photos that I’ve been taking.  Here are some of my favorites this week:

Backswimmer

Notonecta

Backswimmer, Notonecta sp. (likely indica)

I’ve had these guys in the tank for a couple of weeks now and they are really fun to watch!  They have all sorts of cool behaviors and they’re absolutely stunning.  I’ve been trying to track down exactly which species these are and I think they’re Notonecta indica, but I really need to get a species key and run them through to be sure. In the meantime, I just enjoy watching them and admiring their gorgeous eyes and the pearlescent blue-white patch on their foreheads.

Creeping Water Bug Nymph

Ambrysus

Creeping water bug, Pelocoris sp.

This particular creeping water bug lives up to its common name in more ways than one.  Not only does it creep along the rocks and the pieces of wood in the tank, but it also peers out at you from hidden nooks and crannies in the tank.  It’s watching you, even if you don’t see it – it’s a creeper!  They’re quite beautiful creatures though, and he crawled out of his hiding spot just long enough for me to get this shot before he dove back under the log.

Damselfly Nymph

Ischnura

Damselfly nymph

This isn’t the best photo ever as I had accidentally dialed my aperture WAY down without noticing and the depth of field isn’t that great.  However, you can see a lot of cool structures inside this damselfly, and that’s why I like the shot.  Judging from their prominent connection to the tracheae (= air tubes that transport oxygen throughout an insect’s body) in the gills, I suspect those brown squiggly lines are large respiratory organs that bring oxygen from the gills to the head.  Pretty darned cool!  (At least it is if you’re me!)

Mayfly

Batidae

Mayfly nymph, family Baetidae

I have very few photos of mayflies in my collection and it’s due in large part to their fragility.  They get eaten by everything (indeed, this particular individual was snagged by a backswimmer just a few minutes after I got this shot) and they do not transport well at all.  Sloshing around in a container of water is really hard on them and they rarely make the trip.  I was thrilled that this one was still alive when I got it home so I could get some photos of it, though it was missing a couple of legs on this side.  I still really want a good, closeup shot of a mayfly’s gills.  They’re really interesting!  That’s going on my photographic bucket list.

Water Strider

Gerris

Water strider, Gerris sp.

This is technically not a true aquatic insect as it lives on the surface of the water and not in the water, but who can resist a good water strider?  These suckers are hard to catch thanks to their amazing vision, and I managed to catch TWO of them at once!  Granted, they were mating, so they may have been otherwise occupied and perhaps paying a little less attention to their surroundings than usual?  I think these are gorgeous animals, well worth the effort of chasing them down in the pond and then again with the camera as they skip frantically around the tank…  It’s always a treat when they slow down long enough for you to get a shot!

And with that, I’m off to sleep.  Lots to do at work tomorrow!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth
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Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Coming Up For Air

I had my camera at work the other day, taking some photos of the red-headed woodpecker that’s nesting there.  Quitting time came, so I closed up the office and the field station and headed down to the pond for some after-hours photography before heading home.  The light was harsh and very bright, but it highlighted a bunch of animals popping their heads up out of the water all over the pond:

Tadpole surfacing

I thought at first that they were fish, but we don’t have fish in the Prairie Ridge pond.  The only other thing that made sense was that they could be tadpoles coming up for air, but I didn’t know enough about tadpoles to know if this is something they even do.  So I asked one of the Museum’s herpetologists about it and sent him this picture – and I was right!  Tadpoles apparently do this when oxygen levels are low.  If the hundreds of tadpoles I saw were any indication, the oxygen levels in the pond are pretty bad right now…

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

Friday 5: From the Pond

Last Friday was incredibly hot in North Carolina, so it wasn’t the best day to be outside.  I spent most of it indoors, but I didn’t get to stay inside the whole day.  Thankfully, the things I had to do outdoors were either brief or fun, and I finally got a chance to spend a few moments rooting around in the pond down the hill from my office.  There was some great stuff in there too!  I scooped a few choice things into a little bucket and brought them back up to the office to look at more closely, then I brought it all home to photograph.  The big things were exciting, including…

SKIMMER NYMPH

Skimmer

Skimmer dragonfly nymph

Shallows ponds like the one where I work are pretty amazing places!  They’ve got a huge variation in habitats, from the mucky bottom to the sides of emergent vegetation (like cattails) to the algae floating on the surface.  If you scoop a sample from the cattails, you’ll get different things than you will from the bottom or at the surface or in the open water.  This lovely dragonfly nymph came from the mucky bottom.  Look at all those hairs on the legs!  Pretty cool nymph.  Sadly, it was eaten by the…

PREDACEOUS DIVING BEETLE LARVA

Predaceous diving beetle larva

Predaceous diving beetle larva

This has got to be a Dytiscus species because it was absolutely gigantic, over 2 inches long!  It walked around and around the bucket with those enormous jaws held wide open.  Every now and then it would try to sneak up on the dragonfly and grab it, but the latter kept getting away.  Apparently the beetle eventually succeeded because I woke up a dead dragonfly nymph held fast in the jaws of the beetle.  What an impressive beetle larva!  It did not succeed in grabbing this nymph though…

CREEPING WATER BUG NYMPH

creeping water bug

Creeping water bug

We had a lot of naucorids in Arizona, so these seem like a perfectly normal thing to find in a pond to me.  What I’m not used to seeing is a pale green bug with crazy red demon eyes!  When the light hit the eyes just right, they even glowed a little, which made them downright creepy.  This insect is, I’m told, also one of the most painful of the aquatic insects you can be bitten by, which adds to the creepy factor of the red eyes.

Another green thing was very abundant in the pond…

DUCKWEED

duckweed roots

Duckweed roots

I figured I should include at least one thing that wasn’t an insect here because so many other things belong to the pond’s ecosystem.  Duckweed is one productive little plant!  A few tiny little plants is all it takes to start forming a dense mat that can eventually cover the entire surface of a pond. There’s not that much duckweed on the Prairie Ridge pond yet, but it’s going to be interesting to see how much of the surface is eventually covered this summer.  I can’t help but love duckweed though!  It’s one of the smallest flowering plants in the world, just a little cluster of tiny bright green leaves attached to a root system.  The whole plant floats on the surface of the water with the roots dangling below in the water, as you see in the photo above.  It’s an adorable little plant.

The best thing I found in the pond though, was something that I only saw because I caught a tiny motion out of the corner of my eye:

PHANTOM MIDGE LARVA

phantom midge

Phantom midge larva

I can only imagine that these are called phantom midges because they are so darned hard to see in the water!  This larva was absolutely transparent except for the big air bubbles you can see inside the larva in the photo and the tiny black marks.  It was nearly impossible to see in the bucket and every time I lost track of it I had to spend several minutes staring into the water to see it again.  Phantom midges are cool looking insects, but they’re also one of the few insects that live out in the open water of ponds and lakes.  Most aquatic insects in ponds are found on the bottom or close to the shoreline (in the littoral zone) , but these are often found swimming about right out in the open water.  They move up and down in the water column by adjusting the air in those little air sacs and avoid predation by hiding near the bottom during the day and coming up to the surface to hunt with their prehensile antennae at night.  If that’s not the coolest aquatic insect, I’m not sure what is!  And this was the very first one I’ve ever seen.  I couldn’t have been happier to find it!

That’s a tiny taste of what’s living in the pond down the hill.  I’ll be down there doing programs throughout the year, so it will be interesting to see how the populations change over time and how shifts in the dominant species occur.  And, it’s only a 3 minute walk!  I had to drive at least 30 minutes to get to any sort of habitable water in Arizona, so having a pond so close is a dream come true.  And someday I’ll get down into the creek too.  I’ll let you know what I find when I do!

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

Prairie Ridge Ecostation’s Aquatic Habitats

You all know that I am in love with water.  That’s one thing my new home state of North Carolina has in abundance!  There’s water in the air, water falling from the sky on a fairly regular basis (though I’m told it’s been a particularly rainy summer so far), and there are aquatic habitats practically everywhere I turn.  I used to have to drive several miles in Tucson to get to the closest water, a city park with couple of tiny ponds filled with reclaimed water, but now I’ve got 4 sizable “ponds” mere blocks from where I live and the Neuse River is less than a 1/4 mile away.  The idea of getting a boat has crept into my mind more than once and the thought isn’t completely laughable anymore.  I could actually carry a lightweight craft to the nearest body of water!  I absolutely love it.

The nature center where I’m working also has water.  Let me take you on a brief tour of the aquatic habitats.  I mentioned the little water garden in the demonstration garden last week:

Water Garden

Water garden

It’s small, but I still enjoy poking around in there to see what I can find.  I’ve always loved water lilies, and the carnivorous bladderworts fascinate me:

bladderwort

Bladderwort

I hope I can see one trap an insect sometime!  There is also a little bog garden in the demonstration garden that is filled with plants capable of surviving in saturated soils for at least some length of time.  But these two aquatic areas are nothing compared to the other aquatic habitats at the ecostation.  This is the pond:

Prairie Ridge pond

Prairie Ridge pond, in the rain

It’s not entirely natural and has a man-made earthen dam at the lower end, but it is fed by rainwater coming off the prairie.  I think it’s beautiful!  There aren’t any fish in the pond (yet at least), so the top predators in the pond are snakes and aquatic insects.  The pond is also where you find the biggest diversity of dragonflies on the Prairie Ridge grounds.  There are a lot of dragonflies there, including the comet darners:

comet darner female

Comet darner female

This individual was caught by a mist net that was set up to trap birds so that they could be banded and released.  Comet darners are widespread in the eastern US but aren’t especially common in any given place.  I feel fortunate to have seen both males and this stunning female at a pond that is so close that I can visit it on a quick break from work.  I find myself down there often!

This is also on the grounds:

Prairie Ridge stream

Prairie Ridge stream

This stream is absolutely beautiful and winds its way through the wooded area of the property.  The water is clear and I’m told that the quality is quite high. However, there is an Army National Guard base across the street and all the water from the extensive parking lots there flows into this stream.  The result is it floods quite frequently and there is a lot of visible erosion:

Prairie Ridge stream

Prairie Ridge stream showing erosion of the banks

I got to see a bit of flooding firsthand last week.  I visited the stream briefly to take the photos above and then revisited the same spot three hours later to help another entomologist set up some light traps for moths.  It had started raining in the interim and the change in flow in the stream was quite impressive! All that flooding unfortunately means there aren’t all that many aquatic insects in the stream, but I’m still looking forward to poking around in the water to see what I can find.  Might actually be a fun place to determine how flooding impacts aquatic insect recolonization in a humid region.  The moth traps turned up quite a variety of predaceous diving beetles, creeping water beetles, and other aquatic insects, so there’s got to be at least some good stuff in there!

Overall, I feel very lucky to be working in such a beautiful place.  My new coworkers have seen dragonfly swarms over the prairie, and I’m living less than 2 hours from one very heavily traveled route on the migratory route for green darners, so it’s a good place for my dragonfly research.  I can pop down to the pond in minutes and check up on what’s there easily, including the giant water bugs.  The stream is absolutely gorgeous and there are bugs simply everywhere.  Honestly, I couldn’t have picked a better place to work.  I hope you all enjoy hearing about my adventures there!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Before and After

I’m doing something a little different today and doing a two for one Well-Night Wordless Wednesday!  I enjoyed posting the photo of the cattle tank last week (I’ve worked in that one – it’s quite mucky), so this week I give you the cattle tank that is my main field site.  This is what it looks like during the spring:

Field Site Before

Field site, before monsoon

And this is what it looks like about two weeks after the monsoon begins:

field site, after monsoon

Field site, after monsoon begins

What a difference a few storms make!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Cattle Tank

When  Arizonans talk about “cattle tanks,” they’re not talking about those big silver metal tanks that hold water for livestock.  No, we’re talking about this:

cattle tank

Cattle tank

Cattle tank.  Arizonan for mucky ranch pond.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Building a Garden Pond for Aquatic Insects, Part 5

pondThe Educational Value of an Insect Pond

If you’ve kept up with my last 4 posts, you know that I’ve built a pond at the Biosphere 2 as part of the fellowship I have through B2.  Because I’m an aquatic entomologist, I built the pond specifically to attract insects.  For more details on how the pond was installed, why I chose to include particular things in the pond, and suggestions for building your own insect pond, see my previous few posts!  Today I’m going to talk about my educational display as a whole, the experience the pond was built to be a part of.

As I said in my first post in the series, I believe the best way for people to learn about aquatic insects is to see live insects.  The focus of my display is my pond so that B2 visitors can see live insects swimming around and doing the things they normally do.  If everything goes as planned, the pond will attract several insect species (including several beetles, mayflies, backswimmers, water boatmen, bloodworms, etc) from the surrounding area that will then colonize the pond.  However, simply having people look at the insects has almost no educational value.  To actually teach visitors something about the insects they find in the water, I created educational signs and identification guides.

My signs focus on two different topics, aquatic insects of the Sonoran Desert and dragonflies and damselflies:

aquatic insects sign

Aquatic insects sign

dragonfly sign

Dragonfly sign

I know you can’t read the text in the signs, but let me tell you a bit about them.  The aquatic insects sign focuses on something that is related to the work that I do: how the types of aquatic insects you find in a body of water can tell you important things about that body of water.  Aquatic insects are found in almost all exposed freshwater, from a huge river to the water that collects in the base of your flower pots.  Aquatic insects also depend on the availability of water for their survival and reproduction.  This makes them excellent indicator species, species that tell us about the characteristics of a particular aquatic habitat.

In my aquatic insects sign, I discuss two different things that aquatic insects can tell us: how clean the water is and whether the water normally flows or not.  Many federal, state, and local governmental organizations rely on insects to tell them valuable things about how clean the water is.  Over the past 30 or 40 years, scientists have been observing insects they find in different types of water and assigning them pollution tolerance values.  These tolerance values are based on the characteristics of the water in which the insects are typically found and can be inputted into mathematical formulas to tell an agency how clean the water is.  I’ve done several projects that use insects as indicator species of aquatic habitat quality and it is a valuable means of quickly determining how clean the water is.  I’ll discuss this idea further in a future post.

Insects can also tell us whether the water usually flows or not.  Most aquatic insects have a preferred habitat, the place they most like to live.  When you see enough habitats and collect enough insects, you start to see patterns in their distribution.  For example, the insect called a hellgrammite (the larva of the dobsonfly) is usually found in fast flowing, relatively cool water.  It is also long-lived for an insect, spending about 3-5 years underwater before it pupates and then emerges as an adult.  If you find a hellgrammite, you know that the water in the system generally flows year-round and is often cold because they require 3-5 years of fast-flowing, cool water to survive.  Knowing which insects belong in which types of conditions can tell you a lot about a system based solely on the insects you see in that system.  It is also possible to tell whether disturbances have occurred in a system by looking at the insect population.  For example, if you were to look into a pond and find a hellgrammite you might suppose that the area has been experiencing a drought, perhaps drying a flowing stream sufficiently to form ponds.  A hellgrammite wouldn’t normally be found in still water, so you know there’s something abnormal going on in that system.

My dragonfly sign focuses on my favorite insects, the dragonflies.  It’s a simple sign that talks about the life cycle of dragonflies (they are hemimetabolous insects, so they have three life stages – see my post on metamorphosis for more detailed information) and how to tell the dragonflies and damselflies apart (see my posts on how to tell them apart as adults and nymphs for more info on this topic).

Both signs introduce a topic, pose a question for the visitor to answer on his or her own, and then directs them to identification guides that will help them identify the things they are most likely to see.  The dragonfly sign asks visitors to look for dragonflies and damselflies in the places they are most likely to be and suggests that they identify any they observe using the dragonfly ID guide.  The aquatic insect sign asks them to look into the pond to see which insects a typical Sonoran Desert pond, one that contains still water year-round, will contain.  They are encouraged to use the aquatic insect ID guide to identify the insects they find in the water.  Both guides include photos, the scientific and common names of the insect, some of their obvious identifying characteristics, and suggestions for where to look for them in the pond.  The ID guides were printed in color, laminated, and hung off the side of the pond via binder rings for easy access:

ID guides

The ID guides hanging from their hangers on the pond.

I hope they will get good use for several years!  I have also made the ID guides available here for people to download if they wish.  This introduced all sorts of copyright issues for the images I was originally intending to use, some gorgeous line drawings from an aquatic entomology book that is otherwise dated, so I ended up using photographs instead.  Most of the photographs are my own, but I would also like to thank Bob Behrstock for providing images for most of the damselflies that I was missing.  Be sure to check out his amazing insect photographs on his website!  To download the ID guide files, please see my Educational Materials page.  I will leave them archived here for as long as I am able.

And that wraps up my pond series for now!  I’ll give a brief update on how the pond is doing in May after we have the final meeting for my cohort of Biosphere 2 Science and Society fellows and I have a chance to check up on it, but I think my pond is largely on its own at this point.  All in all, I thought the pond-building experience was a good one.  It ended up being a lot more work than I’d expected because I got less help at every stage than I had expected, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and better educated, right?  I learned a lot while building this pond and it’s an activity I would highly recommend that other people try.  If I could do it, anyone can!  It wasn’t all that expensive (about $600 for the tank and all of the supplies) and the above ground tank made everything pretty easy in the construction phase.  Plus, you get to use power tools, and that’s always a good thing.  You can’t beat the end product – a gorgeous pond full of green plants and amazing insects in your yard.  I am looking forward to the day when I can build a pond in my own yard and enjoy the dragonflies and other insects that will use it.  I’m sure it will be even easier the second time around!

Until next time, I leave you with a photo of my entire display (pond, signs, ID guides, and all) in the lovely orchard courtyard of the B2.  If you have a chance to visit B2 and check it out, I hope you’ll stop back here and leave comments!  I’d love to hear what people find in the pond and how they like the display – and I’m always happy to answer questions too.

educational display

The final product of my permanent educational display at the Biosphere 2.

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Posts in this series:

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com.