What You Can See on March 23
Submitted by Ted Williams on Thu, 03/23/2006 - 09:11.
From Audubon’s Earth Almanac by Ted Williams and compiled in “Wild Moments,” edited by Connie Isbell, Illustrations by John Burgoyne, Storey Publishing, 174 pages. Mini Monsters From Arkansas to the Pacific and from British Columbia to Guatemala horned lizards -- magnified monsters of choice in 1950s horror flicks -- are emerging from hibernation. Most taxonomists recognize 14 North American species inhabiting dry areas from oak-pine forests to thorn-scrub deserts. All horned lizards (or “horny toads,” as they also called) have wide, flat, spine-fringed bodies and tails, and heads crowned with sharp, demon-like horns; few adults are over seven inches long. Especially at this time of year these reptiles can be seen basking, their backs tracking the sun like solar panels. At night they stay warm by digging into the dirt, first cutting a trench with their snouts, then enlarging it with their sides. When it rains they tilt their heads down so that water runs off their backs and into their mouths. When set upon by predators they inflate their bodies like blowfish and, if pressed, squirt streams of blood from the corners of their eyes for distances of several feet. For these “tears of blood” Mexicans call horned lizards “torito de la Virgen” or the Virgin's little bull. Apparently the blood causes discomfort in attackers. A cat, thus anointed, was seen to froth at the mouth and roll. Gaudy Undertakers In spring our largest carrion-eating insect, the inch-and-a-half-long, black-and-orange American burying beetle, emerges from the earth, where it has spent the winter as a pupa, and starts scanning the countryside with antennae that can detect decaying flesh a mile away. A male will fly to a carcass at night, then emit powerful pheromones that attract females. Lying on its back and using its legs like a conveyer belt, a beetle can move a creature 200 times its weight. Working together, a mated pair buries the carcass, clips off fur or feathers, and injects it with preservatives. This done, the female excavates a nearby nursery in which she lays 10 to 30 eggs. Both adults attend the larvae, which rear up and beg for food, stroking their parents' jaws like wolf pups and thereby inducing them to regurgitate. Burying beetles, federally listed as endangered and benefiting from an aggressive recovery program, used to occur in at least 35 states but now are restricted to parts of Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Their decline may be linked to extinction of prime food sources -- the heath hen along the Atlantic coastal plain and elsewhere the passenger pigeon, thought to have been more numerous than all other North American birds combined. Currently they’re being depressed by a proliferation of competing scavengers such as skunks, raccoons and opossums.