The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Creature Features (30)

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Reddick Yellow CardinalA rare yellow cardinal is seen at a residence in Roane County this winter. Catherine Reddick

As yellow cardinals proliferate, are we watching evolution unfold in real time?

HARRIMAN — During the pandemic, when isolating at home became a necessity, birdwatching and bird feeders soared in popularity. Watching our avian friends come and go is entertaining, and sometimes quite surprising.

When it comes to songbirds, especially at this time of year, the northern cardinal is perhaps the most recognized and beloved.

It is the state bird of no less than seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

It’s also the nickname of more sports teams than any other icon. There are the St. Louis Cardinals in baseball, and the Arizona Cardinals in professional football. In the NCAA, there are the Louisville Cardinals and 17 other colleges that sport the red mascot, as well as a gaggle of high school teams across the country.

Since we were children, we have all known what a male northern cardinal looks like. He’s bright red. Right? Yes, unless he’s bright yellow!

Finding a golden treasure usually requires a long arduous quest through terra incognito.

Published in News, Creature Features
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Research from Kimberly Sheldon at the University of Tennessee suggests insect behavior is adjusting for climate change

The ConversationIf the TV series “Dirty Jobs” covered animals as well as humans, it would probably start with dung beetles. These hardworking critters are among the insect world’s most important recyclers. They eat and bury manure from many other species, recycling nutrients and improving soil as they go.

Dung beetles are found on every continent except Antarctica, in forests, grasslands, prairies and deserts. And now, like many other species, they are coping with the effects of climate change.

I am an ecologist who has spent nearly 20 years studying dung beetles. My research spans tropical and temperate ecosystems, and focuses on how these beneficial animals respond to temperature changes.

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Bog TturtleThis baby bog turtle may be the face of a new generation of bog turtles raised by Zoo Knoxville for a return to the wild.  Zoo Knoxville

Bog turtles raised for resurrection at Zoo Knoxville’s ARC

KNOXVILLE — Zoo visitors might overlook the collection of critters behind a small, unremarkable window. But amid the showier gila monster, reticulated python, king cobra and Cuban crocodiles, there’s a regional species on the brink of extinction that’s worth a closer look.

Behind the glass, tiny juvenile bog turtles poke their heads out from underneath sphagnum moss at Zoo Knoxville’s Clayton Family Amphibian Reptile Conservatory (ARC).They are mostly brown, with splashes of gold on their heads. When they mature, they will move to the Bern Tryon Turtle Propagation Bog just outside. Eventually, the zoo will release the heartiest of the bunch. This process, called head-starting, involves raising the turtles from eggs and feeding them well in captivity so they’ll be bigger and have a better chance to survive after returning to the wild.

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IMG 3985Kat Johnson meets a butterfly during a recent event at the University of Tennessee Arboretum in Oak Ridge. Ben Pounds/Hellbender Press

UT Arboretum event reminds us to love and care for the butterflies among us

OAK RIDGE — With an orange flutter, a cluster of painted lady butterflies took to the sky.

It was a timed release, coming toward the end of the seventh annual University of Tennessee Arboretum’s Butterfly Festival last month. 

Earlier, other live painted lady butterflies were available to watch in mesh tents. Visitors got a chance to touch Madagascar hissing cockroaches and look at preserved insect collections with butterflies and other creatures from around the world. Children ran around the event with butterfly face paint, butterfly masks and butterfly wings. But the event was also a chance to buy butterfly-friendly plants and learn about butterflies and their relationships with other species. 

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Bales Freshwater jellyfish

Freshwater jellyfish: Here one year, gone the next.

KNOXVILLE — Paddling along the still water of Mead’s Quarry Lake you notice the air bubbles created by your oars. They are all around your canoe near the surface.

It’s a hot early September afternoon and the nearly transparent bubbles seem to take on a life of their own. You slow to watch and yes, they undulate, rising and falling in the pristine water of the abandoned marble quarry.

Air bubbles do not undulate!

Taking a clear plastic cup, you lean over the gunwale and scoop up one of the penny-sized bubbles to get a closer look.

Tentacles? Air bubbles do not have tentacles. What you are looking at is a freshwater jellyfish and the heat of late summer is its mating season. It’s a blossom of jellyfish as hundreds gather together near the water’s surface. They are commonly known as peach blossom jellyfish

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1 smokies most wanted infographic credit Emma Oxford GSMA

This story was provided by Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Next demonstration on Thursday, Oct. 20

GATLINBURG — Great Smoky Mountains National Park is celebrating the success of a community science project led by nonprofit partner Discover Life in America (DLiA) called Smokies Most Wanted. The initiative encourages visitors to record life they find in the park through the iNaturalist nature app. DLiA and the park use these data points to map species range, track exotic species, and even discover new kinds of life in the park. 

“iNaturalist usage in the Smokies has skyrocketed from just four users in 2011, to 3,800 in 2020, to now more than 7,100 users,” said Will Kuhn, DLIA’s director of science and research. 

In August, the project reached a milestone, surpassing 100,000 records of insects, plants, fungi, and other Smokies life submitted through the app. Among them are 92 new species not previously seen in the park.

Smokies researchers make a formal acquaintance with a familiar salamander

black bellied salamanderJonathan Cox

Great news from the Smokies via Instagram!

The “salamander capital of the world” just gained a new member! Meet our 31st species: the Cherokee black-bellied salamander, or Desmognathus gvnigeusgwotli. Its species name means “black belly” in the Cherokee language. Scientists used genetics to find out that it is different from the other black-bellied salamander in the park.

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 Bales Monarch on coneflowerA monarch butterfly, recently declared endangered despite decades of conservation, is seen atop a coneflower. Stephen Lyn Bales

Dramatic monarch declines mean the bell tolls for we

KNOXVILLE — Monarch butterflies are ephemeral by nature. The orange and black dalliances that flitter through our lives, our yards, and our countryside like motes of dust are here one minute and gone the next. We pause for a few seconds to watch the “flutter-bys” and then move on.

For about all of the Lepidopteran family, where they come from, where they go, their raison d'être, we don’t ask. They are winged wisps that pass through our busy lives. But that is not true with this orange and black butterfly, named to honor King William III of England, the Prince of Orange. But two people did ask.

Norah and Fred Urquhart lived in Southern Canada and in the late 1930s they noticed that the monarch butterflies seemed to all be fluttering south this time of the year. Could they possibly be migrating and if so, where did they go? The notion that a butterfly might migrate south for the winter seemed hard to fathom. Yes, broad-winged hawks migrate. But a flimsy butterfly?

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Gray fossil site bone crushing dogIllustration of the Gray Fossil Site bone-crushing dog, recently determined to have been active in the ancient Southern Appalachians. Mauricio Anton via ETSU

Discovery of ancient ambush predator is one of few large carnivores found at East Tennessee paleontological site

JOHNSON CITY — Overseen by the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology at East Tennessee State University, researchers have studied the Gray Fossil Site for over 20 years. They have identified many extinct animal and plant species of the Pliocene epoch that lived there some 5 million years ago. While large herbivores are well known from the site, large predators are relatively uncommon, so far including only alligators and scarce remains of at least one sabertooth cat. 

Now, there’s a new predator on the scene.  

A recent study published in the Journal of Paleontology describes a single right humerus (upper arm bone) of an animal named Borophagus, a member of an extinct group more commonly called bone-crushing dogs. The animal is so named for its powerful teeth and jaws. This is the first evidence of any animals in the dog family from the Gray Fossil Site.

The research was conducted by Emily Bōgner, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, and alumnus of ETSU’s paleontology master’s program, and Dr. Joshua Samuels, associate professor in the ETSU Department of Geosciences and curator at the Gray Fossil Site and Museum.  

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Charles Henry Turner zoologistZoologist Charles Henry Turner was the first scientist to prove certain insects could remember, learn and feel. Charles I. Abramson via The Conversation

Charles Henry Turner concluded that bees can perceive time and develop new feeding habits in response 

This story was originally published by The Conversation. Edward D. Melillo is a professor of history and environmental studies at Amherst College.

On a crisp autumn morning in 1908, an elegantly dressed African American man strode back and forth among the pin oaks, magnolias and silver maples of O’Fallon Park in St. Louis, Missouri. After placing a dozen dishes filled with strawberry jam atop several picnic tables, biologist Charles Henry Turner retreated to a nearby bench, notebook and pencil at the ready.

Following a midmorning break for tea and toast (topped with strawberry jam, of course), Turner returned to his outdoor experiment. At noon and again at dusk, he placed jam-filled dishes on the park tables. As he discovered, honeybees (Apis mellifera) were reliable breakfast, lunch and dinner visitors to the sugary buffet. After a few days, Turner stopped offering jam at midday and sunset, and presented the treats only at dawn. Initially, the bees continued appearing at all three times. Soon, however, they changed their arrival patterns, visiting the picnic tables only in the mornings.

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