Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Road-Trip Biology

After successfully defending my PhD thesis in early December of last year, I took some time off and drove down to Austin, Texas to spend the winter break with my parents. I stopped for gas and food a few times along the way to a hotel in Wichita, Kansas for my first night.



The second day, I took a more relaxed approach to my travel and stopped a few times to walk at roadside rest-stops. I planned to stop in Oklahoma to get some photos and a sample of the state soil, the Port Silt Loam. I found the soil at a small roadside stop about 50 miles north of Oklahoma City.

Whenever I've passed through the region, I noted that some of the dried grasses seemed to carry the color from the soil, while others did not. On other trips through the region, I noticed that in other areas where a grey soil is found, the same sort of grasses seemed to pick up the color of that soil too. I was hoping to get a sample of the grey soil as well, for comparison, but I didn't happen to encounter any.



At the same stop where I found the clay, I also found a nice juniper tree. As I was looking for a photogenic cluster of cones to photograph, I found what looked like the broken end of a branch hanging down.
On closer examination, I realized it was instead the pupal case of some insect. Once I saw one, I realized the tree was covered in them. I took one home with me to dissect. Inside I found the expected pupa.

After a little searching, I found the insect is called the "Evergreen Bagworm" (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis). They're considered a destructive parasite of the Juniper, with infestations eventually killing the trees.



Once I was in Austin, Texas, I spent most of my time with family. I did spend some time walking around the neighborhood, where I found a nice Mistletoe plant with fruit. Phoradendron coryae is the local Mistletoe species which grows on oak trees like the live oak (Quercus virginiana) I found this one growing on.

Individuals of this group are either male or female and live for many years. I've pondered on the idea of how one might grow mistletoe in an artificial media, but I've never heard of anyone actually working on such a project.



One of the common plants of south-central Texas is the Ball Moss (Tillandsia recurvata). Though called a moss, it is really a flowering plant related to Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and Pineapple (Ananas comosus). It commonly grows on the interior branches of Texas Live Oak (Quercus virginiana), though I have in the past found it growing on old wooden fence posts and other man-made structures.

During my freshman year at the University of Texas, I noted one growing on the side of a building outside a tenth-story window. I wonder if it is still there.



I hadn't visited the Gateway Arch in many years, so I decided to route my trip home through Saint Louis, Missouri to have a walk around.

I didn't find much of biological interest while wandering the city, but I did get a nice photo of this birthday-cake statue on the grounds of the Arch celebrating the 250th year of Saint Louis.