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Life in the day of a Fritillary

There’s a certain Passionflower vine that grows in an unlikely crack in our pool deck.


Sonoran desert Passion flower, Passiflora foetida, a rambunctious native vine with a weird (but edible) fruit.

It’s the most enduring of all of the tough volunteer passiflora vines that inhabit our yard, exposed to blazing sun each summer afternoon, and even surviving winters with killing frosts, its roots shielded from chill and drought by the aging cement deck. This plant is crammed into the same seam as two other stubborn, spiny volunteers, a Palo Verde tree and a wolfberry, which the vine uses unashamedly for support while clambering up to the sun. This chimæric tangle of species is inconveniently located — crowding an outdoor table and the barbecue grill — but it provides prime nature-watching: towhees scrabble around looking for seeds underneath, whiptail lizards flick their tongues at ants, desert cottontails crouch in its shade, and cactus wrens glean its stems and leaves for insects.

All of the following photos of the Gulf Fritillary’s (Agraulis vanillæ) life cycle were taken on this scrubby Passion flower vine clump in our Phoenix-area back yard. (All photos A.Shock — be sure to CLICK TO ENLARGE, especially the last portrait!)

A single egg.  Each is laid one at a time by a hovering, nimble female Gulf Fritillary

A single egg like a tiny ear of yellow corn. Each is laid one at a time by a hovering, nimble female Gulf Fritillary. The egg is the size of a dull pencil point.


A spiky red larva hatches from the egg and begins to eat and grow. The bright warning colors and spines advertise its body’s ability to concentrate toxins from passionflower leaves. If not discouraged by a human guardian or natural predator, fritillary larvæ can denude an entire plant in a matter of days. When it’s finished eating, the caterpillar anchors itself to its food plant, hangs head downward, forms a brown chrysalis, and pupates.

A new chrysalis looks like a dead passionflower lear. Exactly like a dead passionflower leaf.

A new chrysalis looks like a dead passionflower leaf. Exactly like a dead passionflower leaf.

about to blow

As the chrysalis nears maturity, it becomes transparent and reveals the new butterfly’s colors. The dark sheath on the left side is the wing. 

The chrysalis splits open, and the new butterfly hangs in the shade, pumping up its wings until they're sturdy enough to fly.

The chrysalis splits open, and the new butterfly hangs in the shade, pumping up its wings until they’re sturdy enough to fly.


The adult butterfly’s sole role is reproduction. Never having even take wing, our brand-new fritillary is still on a stem near its split chrysalis when another one lands and mates with it. Egg-laying will begin the cycle over again.


Fritillary face.

Dragon-wing rug

If you had a dragon-wing rug — I do mean a rug made out of dragon wings — and it was terribly old and worn but still in use in the family home, and it lay on the floor of a room at the back with a couple of big armchairs to fold up in and lots of dark wooden bookshelves and not many windows, the rug would probably have fringy bits along the edges, and worn patches where you could see leathery underlayments where the scaly feathers attached, and it might still glitter a little with rainbow membranes.  In fact it might look a lot like this:


White-lined sphinx moth wing detail

This isn’t a dragon wing, it’s the wing of a sphinx (a mystical and legendary creature in itself) but in this case the moth version.  All four of the moth’s wings were discarded by an ærial predator over our yard last night, and all four wings fluttered to the rearwingground and settled within feet of each other.  An owl, or a bat, or a nighthawk had shucked it, perhaps — the body would have made a fat protein-rich mouthful but the wings are dry and awkward to swallow, so the predator neatly clipped them and let them fall.


Given this scenario of on-the-wing food prep, the question remains — if you had a dragon-wing rug — what sort of hunter could do that to a dragon?

  (All photos A.Shock, click to enlarge!)

Posted by Allison on May 13th 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,doom and gloom,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (2)

Sphinx in pinks

spnxpnksIt’s springtime, and under the fluorescent bulb the front porch metamorphoses into a feeding and mating hotspot.  Mantids, huntsmen, sunspiders, cellar spiders, a variety of moths and other jointleggedies and geckos  congregate at this arthropodal equivalent of a savannah watering hole to look for love, snacks, and in the case of the mantids, lovesnacks.

The showy barflies of the moment are the sphinx moths — I believe these are White-lined Sphinxes, Hyles lineata, also known as hummingbird moths — two of whom have been flirting on the front door screen by night and roosting under the eves during the day.  Last night one chose the Cyclamen in a wall pot for its dayroost, and was a patient subject for close-ups in the morning.  (By the way, the outrageous saturation of the pink cyclamen is not artificially boosted — in fact, I had to tone it down a bit because it actually hurt to look at.)

The sphinges hover at flowers like Evening primrose (which aren’t in bloom yet around the yard) and this hovering habit along spnxfacewith their large size (nearly 2 inches long) and feathery-looking body covering give them their nickname of hummingbird moths.  But look at the portrait on the left — they’ve got big nocturnal eyes, which look more owly than hummery to me.

Check out another sphinx moth here, the rustic sphinx whose larvæ feed on Desert willow and tecoma.

(Photos A.Shock, be sure to click to enlarge)

Posted by Allison on Mar 23rd 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (0)

The Mystery of the One-armed Bandit and other Tales of the Cold War

Just a few days ago, we experienced a rare deep-freeze in the Southwest deserts.  During a normal winter it can get cold in the low desert — not Canada cold, or even Iowa cold, of course — but this was an unusually lengthy and deep cold for our desert, sinking well below freezing for several nights running, and not warming up past the mid-40s during the day. One spot in our yard went below 20F for three nights in a row.  That’s enough to cause trauma and die-back even in hardy native plants.  Birds spend long daylight hours feeding frantically at both natural and human-provided food sources; mammals, too, unless they’re equipped to shelter in cavities, crevices, or caves, or underground like the local reptiles and arthropods.

<< Old-school thermometer hung in a young saguaro in the cold part of our yard

Cold-powered hunger also can make animals “tame” — fearless hummingbirds slurp at feeders as they’re being carried out to the trees, and aloof night-time hunters like owls and coyotes will boldly stretch their workdays into sunlit hours, and onto back porches and front yards.  This boldness can increase success in finding nourishment, but it also increases exposure, which can be risky for animals who rely on not being seen for both safety and effective foraging.  Traveling in California during an extreme coldsnap many years ago, E and I saw three bobcats in a week, because the stealthy nocturnal predators were out in daylight hours hunting sparrows and small mammals themselves made unusually unwary by the desperation of hunger.

But a mitigating feature of desert freezes is how quickly warmth follows cold.  There’s no lengthy spring warm-up. Within a day or two of our arctic chill, daytime temps have already bounced up to the 70s, 10F degrees above the seasonal average.  Expert survivalists don’t waste this advantage: as soon as the sun can warm air and soil again and melt pools and trickles, animals re-appear in search of food.  This morning I spotted a coyote foraging in the neighbors’ front yard in broad daylight. After a cold snap, temperatures may rebound quickly, but cold leaves many animals hungrier than usual, and without whichever of their plant or small-animal food resources that succumbed to the cold. In the days and weeks afterwards, sometimes extraordinary tactics are required for survival.

>> An aloe blossom that survived, and a female Lesser Goldfinch who didn’t (photo A.Shock)

That might explain E‘s sighting of a Stripe-tailed scorpion (Hoffmannius/Væjovis spinigerus) scuttling about on our driveway the other evening at sunset.  We seldom see scorpions moving around in our yard — believe me, I’ve tried, black-light and all.  Sadly, most of our encounters with these efficient nocturnal predators are with drowning victims in the pool.  And NEVER in winter — they seek shelter as soon as the weather gets cold, and don’t reappear until it’s balmy again.  For an exothermic organism, there’s no point in being out and about in the cold, expending energy at a time when their arthropod prey is hibernating, making it hard to recover the calories lost in fruitless hunting.

Yet, here was a striper in our driveway.  Maybe it was forced by the cold to come out to try for a meal to boost its caloric resources so it could survive the rest of its hibernation.  Maybe its lack of left-hand grasping pincer meant it had gone into winter with fewer reserves under its exoskeleton.  What its story is we’ll never know for sure.  But my hunch is that our efforts at salvaging succulents contributed to its untimely emergence.  We had stashed most of E’s tender cactus and succulents in the garage when the temps plunged.  Maybe this guy was wintering in a planter, and tempted by the relatively warm dark of the garage, wandered out trying to steal a march on spring.  E snapped a couple pix for me, and let it go on its way, to whatever resolution it could manage.

Good luck to it in its wanderings to find dinner and a new refuge.  But I wonder what that hunger sharpened coyote was rummaging for so hopefully across the street “after hours” this morning?  Sometimes it’s the late bird that gets the worm.

Posted by Allison on Jan 19th 2013 | Filed in close in,Invertebrata,natural history,oddities,yard list | Comments (0)

That’s just how we roll around here

Two dung beetles (Canthon sp) rolling their skilfully shaped bit of a fresh cow-pie back to their abode.  No effort spared.  It’s what they do.

Right now, I empathize.  But remember, the lowly dung beetle is a type of Scarab.  It’s said that to the ancient Egyptians the scarab and its dung ball symbolized the sun god Ra rolling the solar disc across the sky each day, transforming bodies and souls the way the dung beetle turns manure into the next generation.  So keep it rolling, right?  (Photo E.Shock, Cochise Co, AZ)

Posted by Allison on Aug 29th 2012 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history | Comments (0)

I am NOT a tick…

……………………………..or a scorpion!

Fear me only if you are a springtail, or a mite, or any arthropod smaller than me.  I am the size of a lentil, so although my scissor-like pincers look fierce and outsized for my body, and the pedipalps wielding them are Popeye strong and elbowy, you are a looming threat — I run from the shadows of your hands, and the clicking black boxes you hold over me, by scuttling rapidly backwards across the exposed surface you expect me to sit still on.  I am the pseudoscorpion, an arachnid, little cousin to spiders, solpugids, and amblypygids.

<< me, much larger than life on the folded edge of a piece of regular paper (photo A.Shock)

My family and I are tiny predators found all over the world who, if you must use your own reference point to validate us, beneficially snap up even tinier creatures which, grown larger, might trouble you: newly hatched mites and ticks, for instance (they’re cousins, too, and I certainly enjoy that branch of the family, if you catch my drift).  Usually I go contently unnoticed, but this past weekend I found myself exposed to sunlight, spied by thumb-mammals who were trying to pack up a buffet they’d set up for me in the pine dirt on the roof of Arizona (they called it a tent and slept in it, which is rude: I don’t doze on their dinner plate). I had been grazing all night on minute leggy snacks that also wandered up from the forest floor onto the buffet — admittedly, stuffed to the spiracles (it was a plentiful spread!), I was a little muddled and got lost in the folds and channels and couldn’t find my way down by sunrise.

They picked me up — I swear they were about to crush me as a loathly tick, but the next thing I knew they had carried me over to their table where they held me captive for a while, which made me alternately freeze hoping they wouldn’t see me, and flee, which didn’t work either.  So I kept waving my pincers at them until no doubt fearful of my ferocious aspect, they put me back in the needles and dirt, and I went on my way.

<< their idea of scale

my idea of scale >>

You may never have seen or even heard of my family, but we’re numerous and famous.  We’ve been around since the Devonian; that’s 380 million short years, O Primate — fossils attest to that.  Note my efficient body design: NOT “primitive,” please — why improve on perfection? But you seemed to notice us, or care enough to write about us, only since the time of Alexander the Great.  Please don’t look so surprised, of course we know about him — pseudoscorpions have lengthy ancestral memories.  My 2347-times-great grand-cousins inhabited Alexander’s libraries and kept them free of booklice, dust-mites, and silverfish larvae (no doubt King Darius’s libraries, too; we’re the Swiss of the Arthropoda).  Anyway, Alexander’s elementary school teacher, who always had his nose in papyrus scrolls, spared a few words for us and some cousins (who live in clothing and keep them free of moths and other undesirable animalcules, unless he’s referring to lice, which are the undesirable animalcules).  Wait, I have his famous quote about us by heart:

Oh, you need a translation?  Allow me, it’s easy Greek: “Still others occur in books: some like those in mantles, others like scorpions without tails, totally small…”  That’s us.  Then there’s some stuff about fig wasps… he goes on and on about them; those Greeks do like their figs.  Anyway, you see? a shout-out from Aristotle — not too shabby!

So how do we get into your books, or for that matter, high up into the mountainous roof of Arizona?  That is a prized family trait — some of us are phoretic.  (Honestly, the high-falutin’ term shouldn’t surprise you, didn’t I just quote Greek?)  It means we hitch rides on larger organisms, like flies or wasps, and let them carry us around for a while before dropping off (pincers again: very useful things for gripping as well as dining).

<< a pseudoscorpion latched onto a fly thigh (photo by Sarefo, Wikimedia Commons)

We may be commensal, but we’re not parasites: other than a little drag on our ride’s flight efficiency, we do no harm, and it’s a great way to get around to greener, or rather, more joint-leggedy pastures.  And you don’t notice, but we cling to the underside of firewood or potted plants you bring inside from the garden.  From there, it’s just a hop scuttle and creep into your woolen carpet (lots of yummies there!) or bookshelf.  You’d have nothing left to wear or read if it weren’t for us.  A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but without doubt we are excellent guardians against hungry woolen moths, carpet beetle and other dermestid insect larvae, not to mention our less human-centered roles in natural ecosystems: we are leopards on the Serengeti of small-scale soil horizons — though you may need magnifiers to detect our depredations, or to count the legs of our prey.

There’s so much more — I haven’t even told you about our ability to weave protective silken cocoons for ourselves or our offspring by spinning them from spinnerets at the tips of our chelicerae, or that some of us dance elaborate dances before spermatophore transmission (not that that’s any of your business), or that we’re relaxed regarding the concept of eyes, having one pair, two pair, or none at all, or that there are more than three thousand species of us, some limited to single cave sites, others making their living in giant saguaro cactus. But I suspect I’ve bent your ear enough on the efficiencies and curiosities of my large and ancient family.  So, here are a couple of websites (yes, that’s arachnid humor) you can visit, borne there on the underside of your computer’s elytra:

For excellent photos click here, for more in-depth info click here, and for those with inexhaustible curiosity about the order Pseudoscorpionida (thanks for noticing, you free-thinking Prussian, Herr Doktor Haeckel), click here at this excellent resource, or here at our Wikipedia entry.

It’s been nice chatting, but there are collembolids to collar and amphipods to ambush.  And digest.  Have a nice day, and please don’t bother to dust.  Really.

Posted by Allison on Jun 21st 2012 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,etymology/words,Invertebrata,natural history | Comments (5)

Pink eye door

We have not been stuffing our keyhole with magenta tissue paper.

The local leaf-cutter bees have been trimming neat circles out of fresh, hot pink Bougainvillea bracts and carefully layering them with pollen in a tubular nest for their eggs. The eggs will hatch into grubs — females deepest* so that the woodpecker or cactus wren gets the vulnerable males near the opening (the population needs fewer males to successfully reproduce, the theory goes) — which will eat the pollen and leaf material and hatch into another generation of solitary bees.  Solitary bees don’t produce honey, and aren’t at all aggressive, but are vital pollinators in the garden.  If you don’t have handy keyholes in your screen doors, you can buy or make nest-boxes with drill holes or bamboo to encourage them.  A few scalloped leaves on your bougs or roses is worth it!

Collateral observation: I use this worn lever door-handle fifty times a day, and I never see it close up like in the photo — hadn’t appreciated the “greek key” design circling the hole.  Also, I’m pleased to see that its patina is just getting good!

*I couldn’t find out if the gender of the eggs develops as a result of depth, or somehow the female eggs are laid first.  The former sounds more plausible to me, but I’d love any ideas?

(For more info, click here . It’s by a British blogger, but the basic lifestyle info is the same for this type of bee on either side of the Atlantic; be sure to enlarge his photos of the cutaway nesting chambers and the circular cuts the bees make on thin, pliable leaves).

Posted by Allison on Jun 15th 2012 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history,nidification,oddities,yard list | Comments (2)

Mysteries of the front porch

Our front porch doesn’t get much traffic: the occasional UPS guy, guy leaving door hangers flogging local pizza joints, signature-gatherer, political candidate, stranger, or neighbor will come down our sunbaked, overgrown front walk, all the way from the street to the garage to the front door.  But not very often.  The back door is where most of our domestic foot traffic flows.

I should clarify: by “foot traffic” I’m talking about during the day, and bipedal mammalian feet, unless it’s an occasional Cactus wren gleaning the crevices behind the Mexican metal cat mask or the Talavera wall planter with plastic cactus replicas.

At night it’s a different story.  The front porch is where it’s at.  It’s because of the porch light, and the overhang, and the textured vertical surfaces.  All these features seem to have combined to create an ideal locale for a night time hangout, part snack bar, part thoroughfare, and part pick-up joint.  Moths, beetles, and a host of night-flying insects are drawn to the light, while in turn cellar spiders, lacewings, huntsman spiders (big!), geckos and other predators lurk too, waiting for a slip-up among the herds of prey.

<< Praying mantis on the screen door (photo A.Shock)

Last night, we had a small native desert praying mantis on the screen door, swivelling its big-eye head in the dim light.  In real life these aren’t blue, of course (that’s just photo-artsiness to distract from the low-light graininess in my shot) — or green like the giant asian species people buy online to release for garden pest control. These little ones are grayish brown, and this one is full grown at under two inches.  These are the guys whose breadloaf-like eggcases we find in the yard (or, once, in the house on a plant we took in for the winter; the hatchling mantids are green).

Love the mantis!  Or, if you’re very small, fear the mantis!

Posted by Allison on Jun 5th 2012 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (4)

Tale of Two Tiny Tarantulas

On our way home from our weekend getaway, E and I stopped at Montezuma Well National Monument.  It’s one of our favorite places: a compact confluence of archæology, geology, and natural history. If you haven’t been there while visiting central Arizona, I highly recommend it.

>> Montezuma Well and beautiful fall color (all photos in this post either A or E Shock; click to enlarge)

As we were walking back to the truck, admiring the glow of the cottonwoods in the creek bed and dramatic clouds in a sapphire blue sky, I remembered to look down.  It was a good thing I did: underfoot were a couple of spiders.  Unaware of each other or of us, they were not going in straight lines as if to get from point to point, but were moving around deliberately, as if looking for eight lost contact lenses.  Each was a moderately large animal, the size of an adult wolf spider.  But they had round cephalothoraxes, and were black with lots of gray spiky hairs on their abdomens and stocky legs.  I bent over for a closer look, and wondered if I were seeing tiny tiny tarantulas.  Tiny for a tarantula, that is — they were still fairly large spiders, about an inch and a half from toe to toe.

<< on the go, places to be, females to find

We watched them for a while, got some pictures, and went on our way, hoping the squabbling tourist family on the trail behind us wouldn’t accidentally flatten the little guys through inattention.

Back on the highway in cell phone range, and uncertain if we’d really seen tarantulas, I consulted the internet and discovered this site: So You Found a Tarantula?  (In case you ever need to know how to transmit a live tarantula through the US Postal Service — and apparently there are good reasons to do this — this is your site.) It solicited questions, specimens for ID, and generated answers about things tarantular, including citizen science and advice about tarantula husbandry.

>> “Do not get too close: I am assuming the posture that indicates I am willing to kick irritating urticating hairs off my abdomen at you.”

Through this post on the website of the American Tarantula society, Dr. Brent Hendrixson of Millsaps College is trying to increase what’s known about American tarantulas, which for all our familiarity with them from heebie-jeebie movies turn out to be poorly understood in terms of their systematics and life history.

<< Keen sandal for scale.  Tiny tarantula is just to the left of the yellow leaf.

The website was fascinating, but it assumed you already knew you’d found a tarantula — it wasn’t set up to answer the question “Did I find a tarantula?”  And we weren’t sure: aren’t all tarantulas huge hairy hand-sized horrors?  Other tarantulas I’ve seen in the wild or in captivity were all enormous.  If tarantulas we had seen, then they were “toy” tarantulas, the chihuahuas, the tea-cup tarantulæ of the arachnid world.

After a little more research on the Web I was still undecided about their tarantularity, and decided to email Dr. Hendrixson photos of one of our dinky dudes asking if we had seen tarantulas, and if so, what kind?  Within minutes, I’d received an email reply from him: “Definitely a tarantula.”  This was exciting!  Better yet was the next part: “There are a number of ‘small’ species in Arizona and it turns out that this one is most likely undescribed (i.e., doesn’t have a name yet).”

>> Possibly, these were adult males  wandering about searching for females’ burrows, where the ladies were waiting for male callers.

Sure enough, according to this website, there are 14 species of tarantula, all in the genus Aphonopelma, that live in Arizona: three in Maricopa, three in Pima, three in Coconino, etc.  But in Yavapai County, situated between Coconino County and Maricopa County, no tarantulas have been scientifically described.

This doesn’t mean that we discovered an unknown, new species of tarantula (although it is a possibility).  It’s just that biologists haven’t poked around enough tarantula burrows to know who answers the door in this location — it could be an already described species that also lives in an adjacent county.  We’ll have to wait to see what science decides.

In the meantime, we can fantasize about eponymous lightning striking twice: first Thermogladius shockii, now Aphonopelma shockii?  Well, of course not (that’s not how scientific nomenclature-giving works), but you can’t blame us for pretending.  Nevertheless, I’m still excited about having spotted diminutive, un-named tarantulas in the wild, who are living their lives entirely unconcerned that no one has ever slapped a latinate moniker on their hirsute posteriors.

Bonus etymology

All American tarantulas belong to the genus Aphonopelma.  According to Henry F. Beechhold, this name is derived from the Greek elements aphonos, “silent”, and pelma, “[sole of the] foot”.  (I haven’t cracked Liddell and Scott on this one, so we’ll have to take his word for this.)  I think it’s unfair of tarantulas — even tiny ones — to be pussy-footed; I’d rather be able to hear them coming. On the other hand, I once heard the click of a cockroach’s feet as it walked across ceramic tile, and that was fairly disturbing, so maybe, on second thought, silence is golden.

Posted by Allison on Nov 22nd 2011 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,etymology/words,field trips,Invertebrata,natural history | Comments (1)

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