Journal archives for August 2020

August 12, 2020

A Naturalist Picking Blueberries Makes First Sighting of a Rare Cicada in a Century - Observation(s) of the Week, 8/12/20

Our Observations of the Week are these Okanagana arctostaphylae cicadas, the first documented in over 100 years! Seen in the United States by @lcollingsparker and @easmeds.

[As the hoodwinker mola observations showed, one of the coolest things about iNaturalist is how it can bring people of all interests and experience levels together, and here’s another cool example. I apologize for the tardiness of this post, but it took some time to synthesize everything.]

Lucinda Collings Parker (@lcollingsparker, photo below) tells me “I spent my early life and the past 20+ years living in the country and mountains, which I love, but never really paid attention to the individual plants, animals, insects, or fungi.” After retiring two years ago, she took an iNaturalist class run by UC Davis and the American River Conservancy and credits iNat, along with nature journaling, “[as playing] a big part in learning to really look. My current aim is to get familiar with what lives in my part of California, first focusing on my own property. I’m still just a beginner.”

Last month, while out picking blueberries in her garden (a garden surrounded by many wild plants, including manzanita), Lucinda found the cicada you see above in the shade cloth draped over her blueberry bushes. She posted her photo to iNaturalist, where Will Chatfield-Taylor (@willc-t) identified it as the first documented observation of Okanagana arctostaphylae since 1915. “It was exciting to see how quickly the researchers responded and how more sightings were quickly made,” she says, “and since I mainly use iNaturalist to learn about what I’m seeing, it was fun to be able to give back, however accidentally, with a helpful observation.”

Will is collaborating with Jeff Cole of Pasadena City College (@bugsoundsjc) and Elliott Smeds (@easmeds), a Master’s student at Sonoma State University, and they’re “currently working to create a complete molecular phylogeny of the 57-species genus [Okanagana] and numerous species that will need to be described,” he tells me. 

iNaturalist has become a critical way for us to obtain specimens that we would be unlikely to ever collect. You can see the full list of contributions on the Okanagana Citizen Science Project I created on iNaturalist. It's become so important that we are actually considering writing it into a grant as a citizen science aspect to reimburse costs for shipping specimens from people.

Because no one had seen this cicada in over a century, Elliott (below) says “all of us were understandably freaking out a little bit. I live a couple of hours away from the area, so I ended up being the one to go look.

I got into cicadas largely thanks to iNaturalist. I had just received my degree in Biology and I was trying to figure out what to do with it. And meanwhile I had begun looking at local cicada observations on iNat and very quickly realized that there was a staggering diversity of species right in my backyard. At that point there were no active iNat users with expertise in Western North American cicadas, so the identifications were often either very broad or completely inaccurate. So I dug into the literature and started cleaning things up. I created a project called Cicadas of the Western US to keep track of all the observations people post. It became clear that there is precious little known about these Western taxa, and I decided I wanted to help fill that gap.  

Alas, his first day on the hunt was unsuccessful, and as not much is known about this species Elliott had no idea if he would find any at all. But while driving back from the field,he heard a call very similar to its likely closest relative, Okanagana opacipennis, and “got chills.” He returned the following day, received permission to search a stand of manzanitas from the property owner, and found them (*photo below).

“Cicada biology is not a large or glamorous field,” says Elliott. 

Collecting this species and including it in our research was going to be big news for maybe fifteen people on the entire planet. But finding that beautiful insect, camouflaged so perfectly against the smooth red bark, and knowing that I’m the first scientist in 100 years to see this creature—that’s a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Elliott heard quite a few more individuals in the area, and two more independent observations of Okanagana arctostaphylae have been posted since. So, “as for why it took so long for anyone to find it, the main answer seems to be that no one was looking particularly hard...the population is not small by any means,” he surmises. But now that they know where to look, this species can be monitored over time.

“I currently have 4 different people actively collecting cicadas for us,” says Will. “One in Utah, one in New Mexico, and two in Eugene, Oregon. @birdernaturalist (Rich Hoyer) possibly re-found a species called O. sequioae, which was last seen in 1964 when it was described.” Another quite rare cicada was found in Ontario, Canada by an iNat user and @silversea_starsong (more on him below) contacted a friend and a specimen is on its way as well.

“iNaturalist has been an invaluable research tool, but just as importantly it has made me more curious about organisms that I might have overlooked previously,” Elliott says. “It is now almost effortless to snap a few photos of a plant and have an expert tell me what it is, and going forward I will have that knowledge filed away in my head for the next time I encounter it. I am a better biologist thanks to the iNaturalist community.”


Bonus Content!

This is not the only manzanita-loving cicada in California that has recently been photographed on iNaturalist. @silversea_starsong and @ronvanderhoff posted the first known photographs of living Okanagana opacipennis last year. Unlike most members of the genus, these two species do not have transparent wings. And as Elliott mentioned above, the two have a similar call. James explains, 

I've been hearing the song of "opacipennis" in that part of the state, and when I was out with Jeff and Will, we also heard this song and were puzzled by it. It's fitting that this song turned out to be arctostaphylae -- the two manzanita species are closely related in habits, appearance, and genetically, so the shared song makes sense. That song type is quite distinct to all the other Okanagana.

James, who has currently observed the most species of anyone on iNat, visited the Bay Area last summer and was kind enough to talk with me on camera about the cicada find, as well as iNat in general. Here’s the cicada part of our discussion, I’ll post a longer video soon (hopefully!).


* This photo is taken from another observation made later on the same day, to give a clearer view of the bug. :-)

Posted on August 12, 2020 21:07 by tiwane tiwane | 37 comments | Leave a comment

August 17, 2020

A Young Marine Scientist Sees a Large Feather Star in Micronesia! - Observation of the Week, 8/17/20

Our Observation of the Week is this Variable Bushy Feather Star, seen in the Federated States of Micronesia by @marlinleeling!

Born and Raised in Micronesia, Marlin Lee Ling says his father Dana (@danaleeling) “would take us (my two sisters and I) on Frizzles;

basically adventures into the forest to see rivers and waterfalls and other cool stuff. We called them Frizzles because of the Ms. Frizzle Magic School Bus books. My dad teaches Ethnobotany at the College of Micronesia and so on these Frizzle's he would name pretty much every plant in the forest, he could name the scientific name, the English name, and even the name in the 4 main local languages (Pohnpeian, Kosraen, Yapese, and Chuukese)  if that plant had one.

Two years ago, Marlin began studying marine science at the College of Micronesia, got his SCUBA certification, “and from there my interest in the ocean grew.” This summer, Marlin is interning with the Conservation Society of Pohnpei, an NGO protecting the island’s natural resources and habitats. He’s helped conduct coral reef monitoring surveys, and saw the feather star at Pehleng Pass, one of 25 sites being studied. “The channel was full of life from dolphins, to manta rays, to turtles, and the walls were incredible,” Marlin says, “it was like swimming through an underwater canyon.  On that day I also got my first observation of a turtle, something I've always wanted to have.”

While they are echinoderms, feathers stars are unlike the more familiar sea stars in many ways. For one, they are mainly sessile - attaching themselves to a substrate and using their arms to feed on bits of plankton and detritus. They start out with five arms, but those divide into other arms. If an arm is broken, at least two will grow in its place. 

“My dad was the one who introduced me to iNaturalist,” says Marlin (above). “He is a huge fan of the app. He calls it his ‘game’, like candy crush or solitaire, [and] he can spend whole hours sifting through observations of plants and identifying them. 

He began using it in his Ethnobotany class to help the students learn the names of plants. I realized I could do the same thing but for marine life. It's been really helpful for learning the name of fish and corals. For example if I saw a parrotfish, I'd snap a pic and upload it to iNaturalist, it would get identified as a Bleeker's Parrotfish (Chlorurus bleekeri) and so the next time we'd go out diving and saw one I'd be like “Oh, that's a Bleeker's Parrotfish.”. With iNaturalist I'm able to better identify things because a lot of the time ID books use picture perfect photos and when you see the things in the water they don't look exactly like they do in the books, and so over time I learn what certain things actually look like underwater and when I see them I know exactly what they are.

Photo of Marlin was taken by Shanalin Lee Ling, Marlin's sister.


- Feather Stars usually stay in one spot, but they can swim, and when they do so it’s pretty great.

- There are over 1,700 feather star observations on iNaturalist, check them out!

Posted on August 17, 2020 22:05 by tiwane tiwane | 13 comments | Leave a comment

August 24, 2020

In Tobago, a Male Glass Frog Guards Its Eggs - Observation of the Week, 8/24/20

Our Observation of the Week is this Eastern Glass Frog, seen in Trinidad & Tobago by @zakwildlife!

Last week, after posting the above photo as our Observation of the Day, I saw that it was shared 75 times on Facebook, a significantly higher number than usual, even for a great photo like Zak’s. Scrolling through the shares, there were so many supportive comments from local nature groups, like this:

It was really great to get a glimpse into the naturalist community in the country, so I reached out to Zak get the story behind his observation. 

All of seventeen years of age now, Zak Ali says he first became involved in wildlife conservation at age eight, and credits his family camping trips into the primary forests of Trinidad for sparking his interest in nature, as well as wildlife books and Steve Irwin’s documentaries. He began by “training raptors that can't be released to become educational ambassadors.

I first started as an avid birder (mostly raptors) but currently at the age of seventeen, I have interests in everything from Reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. Other than the scientific aspect, I also love the wildlife photography aspect of it. My passion for wildlife drives me to protect and conserve, to learn and understand.

Zak and some of his colleagues recently traveled to Trinidad’s sister island, Tobago, which has endemic reptile and amphibian species. After sailing over, they journeyed to the Main Ridge Reserve to explore. 

The first night we encountered a crab-eating raccoon hunting on a river bank, unbothered by our presence, [and] I saw the glass frogs that night (Hyalinobatrachium orientale) and took a few images but wasn't pleased with them. The next night, with no reptiles in sight, I searched for the glass frogs and I noticed this glass frog sitting on a clutch of eggs, I had to photograph it!! (from my observation on site, the most mature set of eggs was guarded the best). The father guards the eggs from wasps, snakes and other predators, occasionally kicking off wasps that land on eggs. This was my second encounter with the Tobago glass frog, one I will not forget.

Eastern glass frogs are found on Tobago and parts of eastern Venezuela, and belong to the family Centrolenidae. Glass frogs get their name from the skin on their abdomen (ventral side) and legs, which is translucent in some species, making their internal organs visible. Mainly arboreal, these frogs lay clutches of eggs on the undersides of leaves overhanging streams. When the tadpoles are ready (or when disturbed) they’ll leave their eggs and drop into the water below. It is believed male eastern glass frogs cover egg clutches to not only protect them from predators, but to prevent fungal growth, infection, and desiccation.

Zak (above) says he uses iNat to record this observations and to scout out biodiversity and geographic distribution in an area. He and other naturalists also used iNat to record findings for last year’s Tabaquite Bioblitz, and Zak is also a co-founder of West Indian Herping, a group dedicated to educating people about reptiles, amphibians, and other wildlife of the region. “For a small twin island nation,” he says, “Trinidad and Tobago has a lot to offer, it has a very wide array of biodiversity...iNaturalist has made it easier to get locals interested in recording observations and getting involved.”


- iNat user @raindernd’s observation of a Stygian Owl back in 2018 was a first for Trinidad and Tobago! Check out the article here and a great video from Chaguanas Public Library about it here.

- @ldempewolf’s observation of a Microceris dulcinea butterfly also represents a first for this species in Trinidad and Tobago! Paper here

Posted on August 24, 2020 21:24 by tiwane tiwane | 9 comments | Leave a comment

August 31, 2020

It's a Ladybird Spider! - Observation of the Week, 8/31/20

Our Observation of the Week is this Ladybird Spider (Rote Röhrenspinne), seen in Germany by @corinnah!

Corinna Herr is currently a master’s student at the University of Freiburg, and she discovered iNaturalist last year, when someone at the university told her about it while on a trip to Romania. “Since that trip,” she says

I have been using INaturalist to improve my knowledge of species and to help generate knowledge about the distribution of species through my own observations. As often as possible I go outside with my camera to explore nature and upload my findings.

She also shares her photos on Instagram, telling me “I try to inspire people for the world of insects and our other little fellow creatures. I'm not a professional photographer, but I'm trying my best to improve my skills.” So she was very excited to go on a trip with nature photographer Joachim Wimmer to the Kaiserstuhl in southwest Germany, an area of volcanic origin.

On the way…[Joachim] told me that it is possible to see [ladybird spiders] there this day. I had never seen this spider myself before. And actually he was right: we saw two male individuals on our tour through the hilly landscape. Their striking coloring made them easy to spot on the dry ground. I was fascinated by their extraordinary appearance immediately! At first, the individual in the photo was running around but calmed down soon, so that it was possible to photograph it and hold it in my hands.

Ladybird spiders are members of the Ereside, or velvet spider family, and can be found across much of Eurasia. They build tubes of silk in crevices or tree bark, and one female’s tube has been measured at one meter (!) in length. (Miller, et al. 2012) Females lack the red coloration and vivid pattern of the males, and unlike some other species in the family, they do not partake in matriphagy. A study in Spain showed that ants make up a large portion of their diet, and they also enjoy dining on darkling beetles.

Speaking of beetles, Corinna studied ground beetles (Family Carabidae) for her bachelor’s thesis (above is a photo of her using radio telemetry in the Black Forest to study their locomotion patterns), and her master’s thesis focuses on both ground beetles and hymenoptera in grassland habitat. This habitat was recently created as mitigation for the construction of a soccer stadium, and Corinna has been studying the efficacy of soil transfer in bringing along insect species. They’ve found that it’s been successful so far, and she even recorded the first iNat observation of the Notiophilus quadripunctatus ground beetle in Germany. 

Once she graduates, Corinna plans to continue her work in nature and species conservation.


- Here’s a nice videodocumenting a ladybird spider conservationist in the UK, where it was once thought to be extirpated.

- This isn’t the first velvet spider featured as Observation of the Week, check out @vipinbaliga’s Stegodyphus tibialis find from back in 2016!

Posted on August 31, 2020 21:03 by tiwane tiwane | 17 comments | Leave a comment