Thursday, June 26, 2014

Brazilian Giant Cockroach

Brazilian Giant Cockroach, Blaberus giganteus
Also known as a glass-wing cockroach, a giant cockroach, or simply a Blaberus roach, the Brazilian giant cockroach is one of the largest species of cockroaches. These roaches are found from Central America down into South America with a preference for tropical forests and caves. Both males and females have wings, but as they are poor navigators, they prefer running to flying. They are omnivorous and feed on a variety of decaying and decomposed matter.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Silverleaf Nightshade

Silverleaf nightshade, Solanum elaeagnifolium
Silverleaf nightshade is an upright perennial that reaches heights up to 1 m (3 ft) with tiny, silvery matted hairs covering the plant. The hairs also give it the name of whiteweed and white horsenettle. It can be found throughout most of the United States as well as Mexico and can become a serious weed of prairies, open woods, and disturbed soils. Silverleaf nightshade blooms from April until October with the flowers giving way to round, yellow fruits. As with other wild members of the nightshade family, all parts of silverleaf nightshade are poisonous. While many native birds species and mammals consume the berries, the glycoalkaloid compounds within the leaves and fruit are toxic to human and livestock.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Pollinators of bluestem poppy flower not yet identified.
There will be no new blog posts this week, but they will resume again next week!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Blackland Prairie: Part Two

Progression of recovery over four months after a prescribed burn.
Like the trampling of bison, fires helped keep trees out of the prairies. Huge fires once routinely swept across the prairie, burning up to 15 m (50 ft) high and travelling at a rate of 80 kph (50 mph). They were fast and efficient, continuing to burn until reaching a natural barrier such as a river. The fires were swift and the grasses grew back fast. They prevented the formation of thickets were little grass remains. Native grasses often rely on fires to stimulate growth. Removal of fires allowed trees to invade which killed grasses. Even native trees, such as eastern red cedar, are considered invasive as their abundance is not natural. Where once fire kept them in check, a lack of fire allows them to spread far and wide.

Prescribed burn of a patch of Blackland Prairie in February.
Prescribed burns are just one example of prairie restoration that attempts to recreate pressures of the past. These controlled fires kill off small trees and unwanted plants much like the fires that once swept through the prairies. Native plants are adapted to fires withdeep roots and growth tissue low within the stem. Unlike non-natives, the natives grow back far quicker and are able to reclaim the soil; however, burning is a technique that is successful only if continually used. A woody plant will eventually recover, and if another fire is not set, can take over once again.

Prescribed burning of a patch of Blackland Prairie
Prairie restoration involves a number of other steps and varies for each location. Many places must be seeded as few to no native plants may remain. As simple as it sounds, even seeding is difficult due to specifics in germination and growth which rely on proper conditions and timing. The characteristic deep roots of native plants often prevent success by simple seeding and require tubing to encourage and allow the roots to grow. When managed properly, cattle are successful at simulating grazing bison. They are moved around to allow grasses to grow back rather than be overgrazed, their hooves break up dead matter and help water penetrate the soil, and their manure increases the fertility in the soil. In places where prescribed burns are not doable, mowing can help remove plants and shrubs that are not native, and it is also successful at stimulating native grass growth.

Patch of prairie unable to be burned due to regulator issues.
The restoration of the Blackland Prairies is an issue that would benefit many besides the wildlife and is slowly gaining traction. Ranchers benefit by not only provided an abundant and nutritious food source, but the increased foraging by cattle will help prevent tree growth that would otherwise limit them. The dense roots the once made plowing difficult were what kept the soil intact. Not only would it prevent soil erosion which destroys fertility and fills reservoirs with mud, but it would also allow the soil absorb more of the water. While restoration is difficult, it is worth it in the end.

Burned prairie same day as the picture above two months after burning.
Back in February, a small patch of Blackland Prairie was burned for restoration purposes. It has been burned before and was due for another. There are always obstacles to overcome for a burn: proximity to housing, weather conditions, and availability of the burning crew. Although I hope I don’t have to say it, I will: Do not attempt a prescribed burn unless you are a professional. A professional is someone who is trained in the matter, has a crew to help, and a fire truck as back up. While I’ve helped with burns in the past, this was a burn where I was only an audience.

After the burn, I decided to try to chronicle the revival of the patch of land. About once or twice a week, I went there to take a picture (first one posted). It certainly isn't perfect as I used the knot of a tree to position my camera, but it captures the recovery well enough. In retrospect, I should have chronicled the adjacent unburned patch of land for a similar timelapse. Still, I took enough pictures of it along the way for comparison. In less than four months, there is a noticeable difference between what was burned and what was not. Even a year later, it will still be obvious as the songbirds flock to the land that was scorched earlier. Wildfires get a bad name for the “scar” they leave on the land; however, land recovers as it is simply part of nature. You can read the post in whole and see additional pictures on Google+ at this link or read the first post on the blog here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Blackland Prairie: Part One

A patch of Blackland Prairie about three months later.
The Blackland Prairie is one of the most endangered, if not the most endangered, ecosystems of North America. While it was occasionally used for grazing, settlers did not arrive to farm the lands until just over 100 years ago. Within that short timeframe, over 99% has been destroyed by agriculture, overgrazing, growth of cities, and prevention of fires. Of an ecosystem that once covered 50,201 km² (19,498 mi²), the largest undisturbed and unfragmented section left today encompasses only 4.85 km² (1.875 mi²).

A patch of unburned Blackland Prairie next to the burned patch.
The Blackland Prairie was home to Native Americans for thousands of years. While they hunted and set fires, evidence agrees that no lasting damage was done. The beginning started with the slaughter of the bison. While elk and pronghorns were once present, it was the vast herds of bison that contributed most to the ecology of the tallgrass prairies. They provided as food for wolves, grizzly bears, mountain lions, jaguars, and other predators, but they also helped keep trees in check. Small trees were often trampled and killed by bison herds, preventing them from growing, shading, and therefore killing grasses and wildflowers; however, as with other species that congregate in large groups, settlers quickly reduced their population from tens of millions to a few hundred.

Slightly less than a month after the patch of prairie was burned.
The heavy, black clay soil that is characteristic of the Blackland Prairie is also one of the richest soils west of the Mississippi and once the bane of settlers. The clay was not friendly to wagon wheels and the soil with dense grass root networks hard to plow. The arrival of the railroad and advancements in plow technology ushered in the cotton industry. Fertile soil was ruined and was never given a chance to recover. Soil was plowed for different crops, cattle were allowed to overgraze, human populations exploded, and the importance of fire was not understood.

This week is simple two related posts that were taken and adapted from my Sunday post on Google+. The follow the introduction of the Blackland Prairie as well as a personally chronicling of a patch that was burned and comparing it to an unburned patch over the course of a few months. You can read it here in full as well as see additional pictures not on the blog. The next post on Thursday (available to read here) will focus on fires and prairie restoration. It will also include a timelapse photo of the burned patch to show the progression of recovery.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Texas Tortoise

Texas Tortoise ♂, Gopherus berlandieri
The Texas tortoise is a threatened species found throughout southern Texas and into northeastern Mexico. Of the four species of tortoises found within North America, the Texas tortoise, Gopherus berlandieri, is the only one in Texas. It is also the smallest with a shell length of about 22 cm (8.5 in) as well as the most sexually dimorphic. Males have a modified gular extension which is used to battle and compete with other males. While they can live as long as at least sixty years, they do not sexually mature until fifteen years of age. In addition, females lay only one to two clutches a year averaging three eggs per clutch. They are vegetarian with a diet composed mainly of grasses, forbs, and cactus.

Gular scute (extension) on a male Texas tortoise.
Although protected by law, Texas tortoises face many threats including habitat loss, illegal collection, predation, and disease. They have a very limited home range, close to the size of a city block. Move beyond that range, they rarely survive. As with other turtle species, the Texas tortoise is highly susceptible to disease, and therefore should never be touched or move in the wild unless helping one cross a road.

The above Texas tortoise resides at the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary after legal rescue and transfer by Texas Parks and Wildlife. He was illegally removed from his home far south and dumped out of range far north. As he is now non-releasable, he is on display under the education display permit EDU-0609-114 from Texas Parks and Wildlife. It is illegal to hold any native wildlife in the state of Texas (or native bird in the United States) without a proper permit.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Pincushion Flower

Pincushion flower, Scabiosa atropurpurea
Also known as mourning bride or pincushion flower, Scabiosa atropurpurea is a highly invasive species within the Blackland Prairie as well as parts of the western coast of the United States. Pincusion flower is known to form monocultures and push out natives within prairies and grasslands as it self-seeds. Introduced from parts of southern Europe and northern Africa, this species can now be found within a select number of states often introduced as a pollinator plant within pollinator seed starter kits. They are also cultivated to form a variety of colors. The name Scabiosa comes from scabies which the flower was once thought to cure.