The effortless grace of fluttering butterflies floating around from petal to petal, sipping the nectar out of flowers has captivated the hearts and envy of us lanky, lumbering humans for millennia. They have long been associated with love (think “butterflies” in your stomach), the ethereal, peace, beauty, and rebirth.
In fact, the season finale of The Wild Life revolved entirely around the fascination with the transformation caterpillars undergo to become butterflies (metamorphosis) which has long been interpreted as a metaphor for death and resurrection, rebirth into something new and beautiful, and change—leaving behind our wallowing caterpillar selves to become a colorful, sugar sipping, epitome of grace and agility.
We spent the duration of that episode demolishing the old metamorphosis metaphor and building it anew, but as a friend on Instagram recently reminded me, I’m not quite done.
She posted this image on her Instagram Story:
Yes, those are butterflies. And, yes, that is poop. Horse poop, to be exact. But make no mistake, where the poop originated makes no difference to our fluttery friends.
They are Mud-Puddling, or perhaps more aptly, puddling, because they certainly don’t just puddle in the mud.
You see, we all know that butterflies drink nectar from plants. That sweet nectar is essentially pure sugar water—a word pairing I can’t say or type without thinking of the cockroach alien from the first Men In Black.
But if sugar water was all butterflies ever drank, they’d come up short on a lot of other vital nutrients to their survival. So, what’s a butterfly to do, but drink poo?
More broadly, this behavior is characterized by a butterfly (and some other insects) actively seeking out a moist surface such as a mud puddle, rotting plants or animals, excrement, and even blood, sweat, and tears where they will use their long straw-like “tongue” called a proboscis to suck up the sodium and amino acid dense fluids.
Ever have a butterfly land on your skin and start licking you and thought “Awe, I’ve got a new best bro!” Well, you were wrong. The truth is, it was probably just using you for your sweat. Sorry to break your heart. Some butterflies even take a liking to blood and tears.
You were right on one thing though—he’s likely a bro. The behavior is most often recorded in males and is thought to aid in their reproductive success. The excess of sodium and am oil acids collected are often transferred to the female along with their spermatophore as a “nuptial gift” and aid in the survival of their eggs.
To make the whole thing even more upsetting—or funny depending on who’s reading—the liquids pass through the digestives system very quickly, meaning its exit needs to be acutely regulated. In some species like the Gluphisia crenata, this regulation comes in the form of release via anal jet every 3 seconds.
When the opportunity arises, these butterflies will feast upon rotten fruit smoothies. While rotting fruit undoubtedly make a lot of sugars readily available, the rot and fermentation also create alcohols. Now, not only do you have butterflies eating excrement and releasing anal jets, but flying drunk, too! Okay, maybe not drunk. They just use the alcohol metabolically.
Then, there are the Death-Eaters. While they have nothing to do with He Who Shall Not Be Named (aka, Voldemort [that’s right, I said it]), what they do might be categorized as Things That Shall Not Be Seen.
Some butterfly species have evolved specifically to feast upon the juices of the dead and have developed special adaptations which allow them to ‘sniff-out’ carrion from hundreds of meters away—like a blood hound. Once they reach the carcass, they’ll slurp up the amino acids and sodium (and other nutrients) that have been dissolving into juices through the process of decomposition.
One fluid I forgot to mention is pure gold—liquid gold. I mean urine. Butterflies love urine. Apparently, especially, human urine. When they can’t get their fix, they’ll drink their own! Apparently Bear Grylls and butterflies have much more in common than you’d think at face value.
While most butterflies are rather passive in their nausea-inducing eating of nasties, some are decidedly more tenacious in their efforts. Some species in the genus Calyptra are deemed “vampire moths”, actively seeking out and using their proboscis to suck the blood of vertebrates. The Malagasy Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica has been documented to land on the faces of sleeping birds to drink tears (lachryphagy) from underneath their eyelids!
Next time you have a butterfly land on you, just think—and remember. And then shudder in disgust while you frantically, but carefully, shoo them away to watch their graceful beauty from a distance with a healthy dose of denial.
Payne, J. A., & Crossley, J. D. (1966). Animal Species Associated With Pig Carrion. doi:10.2172/4558733
Hilgartner, R., Raoilison, M., Buttiker, W., Lees, D. C., & Krenn, H. W. (2007). Malagasy birds as hosts for eye-frequenting moths. Biology Letters,3(2), 117-120. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2006.0581
Rosa, C. L. (2014). Additional observations of lachryphagous butterflies and bees. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment,12(4), 210-210. doi:10.1890/14.wb.006
Sculley, C. E., & Boggs, C. L. (1996). Mating systems and sexual division of foraging effort affect puddling behaviour by butterflies. Ecological Entomology,21(2), 193-197. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2311.1996.tb01187.x
Scott R. Smedley in Resh, V. H. & R. T. Cardé (Editors) 2003. Encyclopedia of Insects. Academic Press.
“Indescribably…Indestructible! Nothing Can Stop It!”- Tagline from The Blob, 1958
Well, maybe not attack. Indestructible might be a bit hyperbolic, too. But the sight of the creature I have sat down to write about today definitely evokes memory of a certain infamous Steve McQueen nemesis of the 1950’s—The Blob.
This past weekend, we were camping at Savanna Portage State Park. We spent our time hiking and paddling around the parks scenic trails and lakes. (Seriously, this park is the closest thing to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area outside of the Boundary Waters Canoe area with canoe-in campsites, immaculate bogs, and pristine lakes.) The last lake we paddled, Wolf Lake, was easily the most beautiful and serene. With the exception of some kayakers pulling in as we were pulling out, we were completely alone—or were we? (bum–Bum–BUMMMM)
As we rounded one corner of the lake into a blanket of floating lily pads, Chelsea (@TeacherWhoHikes) began to notice these strange…blobs…along the stems. Were they egg sacks? No. Jellyfish? Not quite. They’re bryozoans!
In the latter part of summer, these monstrous, alien looking sacks of ick can be seen in aquatic bodies all over Minnesota where the cling, typically, to whatever they can—dock pilings, vegetation, rocks, etc. But what are they?
These gelatinous blobs are colonies of microscopic animals. Individually known as zooids, and sometimes called moss animals, they reside inside of “jelly”-like tubes which they use to attach themselves to each other and an anchor point. From their jell-o home, they reach out into the void with their tiny tentacles to snatch up even tinier organisms (diatoms, dinoflagellates, cyanobacteria, bacteria, nematodes, etc) for food which are swept into their mouths positioned at the base of the tentacles, into their U-shaped digestive tract. I’ll explain.
Bryozoa are a phylum of over 5000 aquatic, invertebrate, animal species. They are filter feeders, and those tentacles I mentioned are a part of a larger structure—a crown with hollow tentacle like structures lined with cilia called a lophophore. These individuals, zooids, that make up the colony rarely exceed half a millimeter in length, with only one genus not being colonial. Each colony contains feeding zooids deemed ‘autozooids’—this is where things get strange.
You see, these colonies contain individuals which are all genetically identical clones (Fun Fact, the word colony actually stems from the word clone) and co-operate, almost as if each individual was a cell joining with others to perform the functions of an organ—or an entire organism. Recently, I’ve been reading a book entitled The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee. In the book, the author frequently references an excerpt from On the Road Home by Wallace Stevens which reads, “It was when I said ‘Words are not forms of a single word. In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts. The world must be measured by eye.'”
“In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts”. In the Byrozoan, there are only the zooids. To understand the whole, you must understand the individual; to understand the individual, you must understand the whole.
Individual zooids perform different roles or exist in different types, and where they grow and what they do is determined by chemical signals from the colony as a whole or an outside stimulus.
Looking at the single zooid, their bodies come in two parts: the cystid and the polypide. The cystid is the body wall and exoskeleton which may be made up by a number of materials, including: chitin, proteins, calcium carbonate (Tums), or polysaccharides (a carbohydrate). The polypide contains the feeding parts, the digestive system, the nervous system, and the other important bits.
Some zooids are specialized for feeding, others, some argue, for defense, such as the avicularia where the feeding structure is replaced by one resembling a beak of some sort meant for snatching at potential predators and offenders. (hence the avi- part of the name.) Charles Darwin apparently thought the structures looked much like the neck, head, and beak of a vulture.
Then there are the vibracula which may also aid in defense, but also play a role in mobility of the colony, helping them to “walk” using a long modified bristle.
There are also the kenozooids which contain only the body bit (the cystid) and serve as a structure upon which other colony members can anchor to expand “their” overall size or to change direction. And of course, who could forget the spinozooids which, you guessed it, have defensive spines, or the gonozooids (like gonads) which house the precious fertilized eggs which will one day make up the new “body” of the same colony.
These colonies range greatly in size. Some of the largest we saw while out in the canoe were easily as large as a fully expanded plastic grocery bag. The one in the featured photo, if you look close enough, you can see a fairly large fish—dead, of course—trapped inside. Jim Halpert would be proud.
Bryozoans – gelatinous balls commonly sited in summer – Minnesota DNR – MN Department of Natural Resources. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/areas/fisheries/baudette/bryozoans.html
Ruppert, E. E. (2009). Invertebrate Zoology: A Functional Evolutionary Approach. Cengage Learning.
Introduction to the Bryozoa. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/bryozoa/bryozoa.html
Bryozoans (Moss Animals). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/bryozoans-moss-animals
Most know them as seagulls, a name which implies a proclivity for life at sea. Yet this familiar moniker is neither accurate (scientifically speaking), nor seems to fall in line with a universal observation—gulls love parking lots, whatever their distance from the salty sea. But first, the name.
Now, it may sound pretentious to even address this, but the truth is seagulls aren’t seagulls at all. Nevertheless, their truest name isn’t all that far off—simply subtract sea and there you have it. There are over 50 species of gull around the world, all relatively similar in appearance and behavior, yes, but this is important because of the tendency to lump in other gull-like seabirds (albatrosses, terns, etc) into the same group—all of which are interesting in their own right and deserve separate recognition.
Regardless, why is it that gulls are so often found in parking lots, sometimes hundreds of miles from the nearest large body of water? It’s simple; french fries.
Just kidding, but fries certainly play a role—in a sense. Gulls are what we call opportunistic omnivores, meaning they are essentially living (literal) garbage disposals. Fish, insects, worms, rodents, fries, my brioche donuts, eggs straight from the nest, lizards, snakes, frogs, turtles, hamburgers, seeds, fruit, chips, garbage, crabs, other birds, the list goes on, all of which are equally as palatable—dead or alive.
This is factor one in understanding their propensity for parking lot loitering. Factor two is in the wide open spaces. Oceans, beaches, lakes, parking lots, roof tops, and the like all have one thing in common: they allow gulls to group up out in the open in such a way that gives them a line of sight on both potential food sources and potential predators. Wide open space makes a safe place.
One thing I didn’t mention is the Gulls beverage of choice—anything. But as far as water is concerned, they have evolved a fascinating adaptation which allows them to drink salt water. Gulls have what are called exocrine glands which are positioned in the supraorbital grooves of their skulls. Those glands function by excreting the salt directly out of their nostrils!
Gulls are like the Jurassic Park version of Velociraptors. They are intelligent, curious, cunning, communicative, and tend to display complex social behaviors which you may not expect from french fry guzzling “rats with wings” (as they are sometimes called). Like Crows, Gulls are known to mob predators or whomever else grinds their gears. I like to imagine they’d sound like 1930’s Italian gangsters if they could talk, but they can’t, so that’s neither here nor there.
Some Gulls, like the Ring-Billed Gull, work together to actively steal food from other birds and people with unattended picnic baskets—a behavior known as kleptoparasitism. Some gulls have even been observed to land on the backs of whales to hitch a ride and eat parasites and bits of the whales own flesh! Laughing Gulls are particularly infamous for their tendency to destroy the eggs of other birds nests which have had tremendous impacts on the success and presence of other species you might otherwise find along different beaches and shorelines. The Herring Gulls cleverness has been observed to extend to tool use, using other food as bait to catch small fish.
Gulls monogamously breed and nest on every single continent in large colonial groups, typically returning to the same nesting site every year after migration. While their love tends to be life long, there are the occasional break ups, though nothing nearly on the scale of Ross and Rachel. These ‘divorces’ aren’t super common and they tend to be followed by years of social blacklisting.
Evidently, Gulls are profoundly petty.
I am in this group online of people who take their hikes seriously. They ask questions about the best gear while also commenting on the conditions of portions of the trails being discussed. It was in this group that a meme that has been circulating for years was posted. Man oh man, people were offended. Here is the meme:
To be honest, I find this to be hilarious because often I am the ‘guy’ with the hydration pack, 2 hiking sticks, and a North Face vest. I used to be much worse about it too, but I have since calmed way down, and this is why I feel like I know what I am talking about when it comes to the money being spent on hiking trips.
When we first planned on hiking a portion of the Superior Hiking Trail, we went to Scheel’s (a sporting goods and attire store) and let the sales person sell us the best boots in the world, and I think we spent close to $200 each on just boots. I am not saying that I regret this purchase at all because I wear these boots pretty much weekly in all seasons, and they still work like new. I think the only thing that is not perfect about them right now is that I need to replace a shoe lace. I have had them since 2014. I remember though, I was so proud to own these boots. Like, I was now an official outdoor woman or something. Devon, my husband who, you know, runs this blog, was in the same boat. Ladies and gentlemen, our boots even made an appearance in our 2015 wedding. Like these boots were an actual decoration. See proof below.
After these boots, we made more outdoorsy purchases! Oh my gosh, like, we were so outdoorsy! We went hiking like once a month in our North Face backpacks with Nalgenes on carabiners. We even bout a life straw. I will say though, we have yet to actually use it. It just feels so real and so good to buy these items! I think I also have a hammock somewhere in my camping buckets. Oh, we also used these boots in our baby announcement.
Here is the thing though—we started hiking more often. We learned quickly how annoying it is to carry things for long. We learned how expensive this gear hobby was getting. We learned that we needed to find a happy medium. Like I said before, I am not the kid with Crocs in the woods. I am still extra, but I have found out how I can be extra when I need to be.
For starters, I stick mostly to State Parks and nature areas for locations. They are completely affordable when you have an annual pass. Like $30 is going out to eat a couple times. If you have the money for that Chipotle burrito a few times, you can get a pass! Cool, now to save more many turn huge camping trips into day trips. Yea, it is cool to have your own little lot of land for a day or two, but that add another $30 to your trip. Save those for special occasions. Day hikes are just as effective. I camp with family, or we give them as gifts to each other. Every park I have been to allows for the same amazing fire cooking to be done with fire pits and grills in their picnic areas. So, cool, we saved $30+ already.
Next, let’s talk about sunscreen and bug spray. Buy them ahead of time. They will almost always cost more at the actual park. Also, do you really think you need to spend more to get the SPF 100? No. I am legit the freckle queen, and 30 always works. Also, don’t buy more than 50% DEET because studies legit show that any more only adds like an hour of protection. It is just a way to waste more money. So like, $35 have been saved now.
So now, let’s talk clothing. I am such a hypocrite here. I’m going to be honest. But we have our priorities. Take or leave this part. I say this because I live for Outside Magazine and brand name gear. But, as someone who spends way too much on this gear, I do know what I am talking about. When shopping for clothing, ask yourself the following question: Is it really worth it? I seriously mean this. Like, do you really need to spend $100 on that jacket? You get what? A warmer hike? Less water on you from rain? No. You get a brand. They say they’re better, but often, they are just a brand. I really could be just as good at hiking and comfortable with $50 hiking boots. So my advice is to spend more time researching what you buy. Look at the reviews. Ask around. Remember my networking on Instagram post last week? Use this network for advice! Yes, they love their Chaco’s, but so many also love much more affordable and equally effective options people! I’m going to ruin our data while also making an accurate prediction, so let’s say we have now saved $130+ by not buying brand name gear when we found affordable and effective gear at like Target and locally.
Finally, let’s talk about food. When you get food at a restaurant local to the park you’re hiking, you pay like $10+ a person. When you bring some charcoal and hotdog fixings, you can spend $10 to feed a whole group by using a parks picnic area. That save us like $30, bringing our total to $145+ in savings.
I mean we could continue to go on and on and on and on like a Journey song, but I hope you are starting to get the point. It is all about what you prioritize. If you care enough about it, you will make it work. I don’t camp often, and I have limited my brand name purchases. I eat at parks instead of not. I also research what I am buying. That is how I can afford all these trips I take.
If you have more advice for saving money while hiking, use the hashtag #TWLHikingClub on Instagram and/or Twitter for a chance to be featured by The Wild Life!
If you have a story about or from hiking please do not hesitate to share. We will totally feature your story and pictures. To contact us with your story, message us on Instagram, @teacherwhohikes. You can also message The Wild Life on Facebook.
“A yellow-and-black burying beetle, crawling across the white fur of his belly, stopped, waved its short, curved antennae and then moved on again. Hazel grew tense with sudden misgiving. He knew that these beetles come to dead bodies, on which they feed and lay their eggs. They will dig away the earth from under the bodies of small creatures, such as shrew mice and fallen fledglings, and then lay their eggs on them before covering them with soil.”–Richard Adams, Watership Down
The first to arrive are the flies. Shortly after swarm the wasps. Soon, the leaf litter begins to tremble, lifting from the forest floor like the shuttered doors of a storm shelter. An armored battalion of black and yellow soldiers emerges from the litter, and onward they march to war. By the time they arrive to their new battleground, it has already undergone a makeover of the most macabre as maggots begin their maneuvering through the bloat. The carcass of some fish washed ashore, the leftovers of another, no matter the source or cause, the scene plays out much the same from snow melt to first snow fall.
The little soldiers, looking like patrolling tanks moving up and over leaves, are American Carrion Beetles—and death is their siren. As the fly larvae are just beginning to hatch, the American Carrion Beetles swiftly move in and begin their feast—not on the carrion as their name might suggest, but on the larvae. Off their backs, like the Greeks out of the Trojan Horse, climb a hoard of mites of the genus Poecilochirus who join in on the feast. In a reveal of their cards, the beetles begin to mate and lay eggs of their own now that the crowd of competition has been thinned.
As long as the carcass last throughout the assault of decomposition, the adult beetles will tirelessly continue their efforts to thin the competition so that their own larvae stand a chance at survival. The larvae of the American Carrion Beetle are the ones to which their name is owed. They will feed on their carcass of a home (and the other larvae) until they’ve grown large enough to fall to the ground, dig down deep, and pupate, undergoing metamorphosis into their adult selves. The adults (with the mites returning aboard) move on to the next corpse.
This is circle of life—or at least an ugly, albeit necessary, curve of it. This is the life of the American Carrion Beetle.