Monthly Archives: May 2013

Have a Great Weekend

Why, yes, the late Eighties damaged our fragile little minds back then. Why do you ask?

Tales From The Ranch: Introducing Pogonomyrmex barbatus

Harvester ant mound

As mentioned in the past, I love torturing my Brit friend Dave Hutchinson with horror tales about the fatal fauna and flora of Texas. He’s already convinced that Texas is nothing but a semi-desert version of Peter Jackson’s Skull Island spider pits, where every last animal and plant in the state exists solely to eat us, enslave us, and steal our wimminfolk. This, coming from a man who lives in a country overrun with hedgehogs, starlings, sparrows, and Manchester United fans. Some people just don’t know when they have it worse than everyone else.

I’ll admit that some of our problems lie with misidentification, as well as exceptional expectations on the lethality of our wildlife. When I first moved here, my previous experiences with ants were as minor pests, but not anything that could inflict serious damage before stripping the meat off my bones. I’d heard about Argentine fire ants, but decent forms of identification were lacking, especially to schoolkids from out of state. One day, standing out in a big cleared patch of ground near a highway, I found myself being stung repeatedly by giant red ants, and those ant stings swelled and came to a head full of clear fluid after about two days of rather intense pain. Not knowing any better, I’d come across fire ants, right?

The reality was that I’d come across a mound of our indigenous harvester ants, Pogonomyrmex barbatus, and I was paying for standing right in the middle of the mound. I also got off lucky, as I only had about six stings. Argentine fire ants, when they sting, sting in the dozens. P. barbatus also pretty much inflicts enough damage as necessary to convince big dumb vertebrates to get the hell out of their nesting sites, and they otherwise leave humans alone. Fire ants, though, actively hunt around and in human habitations, nest in phone junction boxes and other electrified areas (for some reason, they’re attracted to electrical fields, so they’re commonly found chewing on the insulation of ground-installed spotlights and water sprinkler controls), and make lawn mowing into an endurance sport. If Dave ever discovers that they react to flooding by forming huge living rafts and balls that allow the ants to flow by the thousands onto any life form that comes in contact with them, he’ll be catatonic for weeks.

Harvesters, though, are positively mellow by comparison. They get their name from their tendency to collect grass seeds and bring them back to extensive granaries within their nests, and the granaries are large enough that the nests can extend for meters below ground. At the beginning of each year, most nests are only noticeable because the ants shred and prune any vegetation growing within the vicinity. By the middle of the summer, continued construction leaves a very distinctive pile of small stones around the nest entrance, resembling nothing so much as a very small volcanic crater. Finer dust is moved further away, and larger rocks worked around, so the stones generally range from about the size of a typical ant’s head to stones just large enough to be moved by two or three ants working in a team. Throughout North Texas, they’re usually our distinctive and ubiquitous ironstone, but occasionally such treasures as fossil mammal teeth can turn up in the mound spoils. I myself haven’t found anything other than the occasional tiny shark’s tooth in local mounds, but I also haven’t been looking that hard.

Harvester ant - closeup

Since I know that Dave will insist upon knowing why such abominations walk the earth, I’ll also note that harvester ants are a vital food source for many small animals, particularly the Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum). In fact, P. cornatum pretty much eats only harvester ants in most circumstances. Sadly, the horned lizard and the harvester ant are threatened by the same two organisms: fire ants and humans. Fire ants do a great job at hunting down and devouring horned lizard nests, thus partially explaining why they’re becoming threatened throughout Texas, but both lizards and harvester ants suffer more from habitat destruction and random pesticide application. In the process, harvester ant mounds become more and more rare, generally turning up in undisturbed areas such as those at the ranch. The horned toad…well, I haven’t seen a live one outside of a zoo since 1980.

Harvester ant - close closeup

Another aspect of harvester ant behavior led to a very interesting observation this last weekend. While harvesters have no interest in human habitations as food sources, they definitely appreciate any sources of water, human-caused or otherwise, that last through the summer. They march impressive distances to any steady water source, whether it’s from a natural seep or a leaking pipe, so long as the water is reasonably clean. When I first moved to Texas, I lived in the center of a large area cleared for construction of a new housing subdivision, and I came across a minispring formed by a leaking water line in the middle of the construction zone. Every morning, harvesters rushed out to collect as much water as they could get before the sands around the “spring” became too hot, leaving them open to predation from birds and the occasional spider. The few casualties they faced by becoming bird food was apparently worth the effort of having a water source both closer and cleaner than the nearest creekbed, and they kept coming up to the day a house was built atop that water line.

This weekend, I was reminded of that tiny spring when watching the behavior of multitudes of leopard frogs (Rana pipiens) around a seep close to the Brazos River. The whole area around the ranch was just starting to dry out after a series of rains, so I understood why so many frogs would be up away from the river itself. What didn’t make sense at first was why so many would be in such a shallow and honestly piddling puddle, until I stopped to take a closer look. The frogs had no interest in the seep for either residence or breeding, and all of the frogs were too small to breed in any case. However, it was irresistible to harvester ants, which piled up against each other while gathering water. The frogs just waited for the ants in the seep, ate their fill, and went back to the river. Confirmation came in finding frog scat, almost bejeweled in harvester ant carapaces, all over the area. Once the rains stop, the seep dries up, the harvesters find another well, and the frogs find other food sources. In the meantime, the frogs are fat and sassy, and the harvesters aren’t hunted to the point where they move elsewhere for their water. And the cycle continues.

–And a tip of the hat to Bug Girl, who regularly reminds me about the constant interaction between insect and flowering plant, and the odd stories therein. Go read every last post she ever wrote, and don’t be afraid to offer her a job if you’re in need of a professional entomologist.

Tales From The Ranch: Secret of the Lost Quarry

Rock pile

After a solid decade of trips out to the ranch, I know haven’t come anywhere near understanding or even listing the wonders and mysteries out there. Some may think “mysteries” a bit extreme, but it fits. They don’t have to be big mysteries, and unraveling observations to make sense of them works as well with understanding plant behavior as it does with solving murders. I’ll admit, though, that if Agatha Christie hadn’t added a big scoop of murder to them, her Miss Marple stories wouldn’t have quite the oomph.

In this case, the mystery starts with the background. One small portion of the ranch lies right on the Brazos River, and the fauna and flora of that area is typical for any similar area in the state alongside a steady source of water. The main trees are oak and cottonwood, with lots of scrub between the big ones. In spots, the right spots, you can even find wood ferns growing in that scrub.

However, taking a look at an elevation map of the ranch, you’ll see that it doesn’t make a smooth progression from riverbank to full desert. It effectively has four distinct levels from the entrance to the river, with long flat plains leading to each narrow and steep trail to the next. Anyone foolish enough to travel any distance along the ranch without 4-wheel drive would be walking back before too long, and a couple of the trails are getting rough enough that even an all-terrain vehicle needs a steady and calm hand to get up them. In the process, the ongoing erosion of old Pennsylvanian sub-period seabed produces distinctive habitats, with pockets of oddness in each one.

ferns_pile_52813_2

Another bit of background: while the ranch has been in the Czarina’s family for forty years, its history goes a lot further back. Six years ago, my father-in-law went on a trek of idle curiosity, intending to track down what showed up in old maps of the property as, quite literally, “the lost quarry”. A large limestone deposit near the entrance to the ranch had been used quite extensively in the late 1960s and early 1970s for building and landscaping stone, and a second saw extensive use in the late Fifties. The Lost Quarry, though, was a quarry for a particularly dense and tough sandstone used for the reconstruction of the Palo Pinto County Courthouse from 1940 to 1942, necessitating a full WPA work camp in the vicinity during that mining and construction. The general area comprising the Lost Quarry was well-marked, but the specific traces of it were extremely hard to find on the ground. It’s not that the quarry area was buried per se, but that instead it was inundated with recent explosions of mountain cedar (Juniperus ashei. With the trees in the way, it’s hard to see much of anything, especially after seventy years. In addition, the WPA crews did a very good job of cleaning up their messes when they were done, so not much other than a few wooden fences remained when they were finished. Seven decades later, even those existed only as chunks.

Rock pile and ferns

But did they? When we finally found the quarry, the tipoff was finding spoils piles roughly where the crews had been cutting the stone in preparation for transport. Mostly hidden in big stands of mountain cedar, these were now sporadically-lit rubble mounds, further hidden in weeds, cactus, and greenbriar. Oh, and they were covered with ferns.

Ferns

The popular perception of ferns holds that they’re denizens of dark, moist, soggy areas, and Texas, as always, makes a liar of that perception. Texas boasts many species of desert-loving fern, even if many are obscure or inobtrusive, so this isn’t that big a surprise. The problem, though, is that these ferns are only found in this one spot on the ranch. Why should this spoils pile matter so much?

Ferns

Well, the explanation is easier than you may realize. The sandstone making up this pile is very dense, so the core of the pile retains coolness as the outside heats up during the day. As the heat radiates off at night, the loose arrangement of the pile draws in outside air, and nighttime humidity is much higher, especially when the constant daytime southern wind lays off at night. That marginally more humid air enters the core and the moisture condenses on the cool rocks in the core, and you have an air well. It’s not enough water to keep humans alive, or even supply water for animals other than the occasional rattlesnake or spadefoot toad. For the ferns, though, it’s just right, and the thick spreads of mountain cedar all through the area discourage cattle, deer, or most other grazers from stripping the ferns right down to the soil line.

And as an extra, while the use of the term “Lost Quarry” leaves all sorts of implications, I’m sad to say that the Lost Quarry has no dinosaurs in it, fossilized or otherwise. Any fossil beds in the area dating from the Mesozoic Era were probably eroded away long before the last ice age, and every rock in the vicinity indigenous to the area dates to the Paleozoic. Depending upon your definition of “dinosaur”, the area may have some after all: what allowed me to find the Lost Quarry on this trip was being startled by a roadrunner so big that I was wondering if the ranch was raising acrocanthosaurs. The ranch already looks like the shooting location for a Ray Harryhausen movie, so this would just be par for the course.

Hints at upcoming projects

To quote Michelangelo, “When I steal an idea, I leave my knife.” This seemed to work for him, considering his career of artistic bootlegging, and it works here. Being a hopeless fan of the work of Alaska artists Scott Elyard and Raven Amos, I’ve argued for years that the gardening trade needs an alternative to flamingos and gnomes for garden ornamentation, and there’s no better alternative than a blatant plagiarism of Scott and Raven’s Dinosaurs and Robots exhibition. What better way to leave my knife than show the first part of a miniature garden series in progress?

Robosaur

Please note that this is just the bare start: besides constructing the rest of the series, this skeleton itself is nowhere near finished. Let’s just say that I’m very glad that I bought enough europium paint and ultraviolet LEDs for the project.
Robosaur

Robosaur

As for seeing the final series, you’ll have to wait. If this doesn’t add a bit of incentive for people to come out for FenCon X, I don’t know what will.

Tales From The Ranch: May 2013

Lookout Point

When most couples finally get a spare weekend free, they have all sorts of options. They could decide to spend more time with their kids, roughly about the time the kids are finishing up college and asking their parents “Mind if I move me and my English Lit degree back to my old room while I try to get a job with the local Borders store?” Others, with much younger children, have a relaxing time, hoping that nobody notices the recent Google searches on their computers for “recipes for laudanum”. In our case, our only children either mew or capture wayward insects, so holiday weekends belong to the Czarina’s family. Yep, it’s time for a new assemblage of “Tales From The Ranch” photos, including even more natural history and Texas history than before.

Quarry Face

Those stories are due over the next few weeks, but let’s start with the biggest news. The Czarina made a really impressive fossil discovery while we were wandering along the bottom of what was a limestone quarry in the mid-Seventies. As is her wont, she looked down, chirped “I wonder what that is?”, and promptly started attacking it with sharp implements. Fond memories of our wedding night. A few minutes of chipping through limestone shards and thick mud revealed this little surprise:

Calvinosaurus egg

Okay, we know that the stone of the quarry itself dates to the Pennsylvanian subperiod, but with various workings from the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. There’s always the possibility as well that this may have been introduced by Palaeoindians from another location and left in what is now the quarry. When we excavated it, I wasn’t going to get overly excited until we had the chance to look at the other side and view any markings on a surface that hadn’t seen sunlight in over a quarter-billion years.

Calvinosaurus egg 2

The markings confirm it: it’s a Calvinosaurus egg, and it’s probably still viable. Just wait until the guys at the Arlington Archosaur Site get a look at this! Better yet, is there any chance of officially describing Calvinosaurus czarina before it goes on a madcap rampage through downtown Dallas?

Image

Cat Monday

Cadigan

Have a Great Weekend