Month: April 2021

Southwestern Missouri Sandstone Scrambling!

Recently, I got back from a trip to southwestern Missouri- an area with a ton of unusual, rare, tiny plants found on exposed sandstone barrens and glades. These go mostly ignored by visitors to this region, who usually go for bass, boating and Branson. As a botanist who absolutely loves the miniature, however, I was thoroughly enthralled.

Power Line Cut glade
Where I go on vacation

Obviously the above looks like a boring field to the average person, albeit with some exposed rock. The majority of the brown grass above is Little Bluestem, which is at least native but pretty abundant throughout the Eastern US. The dead, dull appearance hides a complex little living world.

Phemeranthus sp. in center (thickest leaves)

The thin layer of soil restricts access to water for most plants, and most of that water falls as spring rains. As a result, most glade-dwelling flora either store water (like the Phemeranthus species above) or bloom early on the in spring and die back by summer’s heat. This second category goes by the name spring ephemeral.

Corydalis aurea
Corydalis aurea being held for size comparison

The most obvious of the ephemerals here is the bright yellow Corydalis aurea, or Golden Smoke. Despite being less than a foot tall, this species still only grows on the deeper pockets of soil within the sandstone glade.

false garlic
False Garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve)

The same goes for False Garlic, an ever-present sight across the landscape of southwestern Missouri, it seems. Any sunny, well-drained habitat seems to be fine for this species, which uses sandstone glades just as readily as it uses limestone ones, and just as much as it uses nearby prairies and unmowed fields.

Geocarpon (Mononeuria minima)

The shallowest areas here, however, support only a few plants, many of them specialists. Of those, the most rare is Geocarpon. This bizarre little plant only grows where a thin layer of soil, usually just the remains of a cyanobacteria colony, has developed on the bare sandstone exposed in patches. The sandstone present must be high in salts or magnesium, as this stunts the growth of competition and seems to be required for Geocarpon to thrive. This dime sized plant sprouts, blooms, and dies in a month, so it takes good timing to catch. I caught it at the end of its season- it’ll be virtually impossible to find even the dead stems by the end of May. Geocarpon’s specificity of habitat makes it rare, and it is federally listed as threatened for that very reason.

Plantago elongata
Plantago elongata? in the foreground

Few other plants grew around Geocarpon, the major exception being a strange little plantain with extremely narrow leaves. This species is either Plantago elongata or Plantago pusilla, depending on who you ask. I lean elongata for this particular population. Note the tip of my index finger in the above photo for a good idea of how tiny these are.

Collinsia on glade
Edge of a sandstone glade

Around the edges of the habitat, Eastern Redcedars take over any deeper patches that are undisturbed. In a more natural setting, or at least for the last few thousand years, fires regularly burned away the redcedars and some of the dirt, leaving the bedrock exposed. In lieu of fire, the power line company does a good job, since they remove the junipers to prevent them interfering with power lines. Still, outside the cut, the trees grow back in, and some other partial-shade loving plants come in as well. One of those is Violet Collinsia, seen above en masse and below by itself.

Collinsia violacea
Collinsia violacea

This region supports a number of barrens species of the Western Ozarks/Southern Great Plains whose ranges all seem to center around Fort Smith, Arkansas, roughly. Collinsia violacea is slightly more widespread than that but follows a similar distribution. I’ve found it once before, on the sand prairies south of Cape Girardeau in the Missouri bootheel.

Blackjack Oak
Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica), a common tree found around the edges of glades

I moved on to a second, fire-maintained glade a short drive away from the first one. This second one lacks Geocarpon but it does have a number of other unusual plants and preserves a better habitat matrix. I’m not sure that there’s a good definition separating glade and barren- personally I use the term glade to describe a shallow-rock habitat with less than 10% tree cover, while I call such habitats with 20% or more tree cover barrens. However, their use is interchangable and both refer to the shallow, open habitats where bedrock approaches the surface.

Glade overview

The second site supported a number of shallow drainages and sandstone pools. These pools are only full of water during the spring rains and are thus known as vernal pools.

Sandstone pool

The wet moss patches near the sandstone pools supported a large population of Golden Selenia, an uncommon ephemeral mustard and one of the brightest plants flowering here.

Selenia aurea
Golden Selenia (Selenia aurea)

Some had even gone to seed, showing off the typical mustard family siliques, though none were ripe. By midsummer these plants will be gone as the habitat dries, so large, pollinator-friendly flowers are a necessity to ensure their continued survival. Based on the bees I saw there, they’re doing pretty well.

selenia seedpods
Selenia aurea siliques

I followed the stream further down, coming to a deeper vernal pool with shallow, silted over edges. Here a number of tadpoles and mayfly larvae resided. Like the surrounding plants, these species take advantage of the spring rains to use the vernal pools before they dry up. Heck, even in the pools a few species of plants occured.

Second Glade
The tadpoles frolicked around a grasslike plant with dark swollen bases- a unique fern, Blackfoot Quillwort. Quillworts develop their spores in the bases of their leaves. These spores, once fully mature, are released into the surrounding water, and can be carried from one pool to another by wandering animals like the frogs. The plain appearance does make it hard to ID quillworts, but thankfully in southwestern Missouri there’s only two and Blackfoot Quillwort is the only one of the two to use acidic sandstone glades like this one. In regions with more quillwort diversity, microscopic examination of spores is necessary for identification.
Isoetes melanopoda
Blackfoot Quillwort (Isoetes melanopoda) and tadpoles

Not all species rely solely on spring rains. Sedum nuttallii grows in crevices and cracks throughout the sandstone glade here, and its succulent leaves store water for dry periods. However, this species is also ephemeral, though it flowers a bit later in the year when more pollinators are active.

Sedum nuttallii
Nuttall’s Stonecrop (Sedum nutallii)

While this time of year is dominated by annual, ephemeral flowers, there’s still quite a few perennials. The small, needlelike leaves of Selaginella rupestris reduce water loss, and the plant can go dormant between rains, but it survives as a mat of stems year-round on this habitat.

Rock Spikemoss (Selaginella rupestris)

In slightly shaded areas around the edges, more perennial plants can compete, and species like this Blue Ridge Blueberry grow- perennials with a high degree of tolerance for drought, but which require slightly less extreme conditions than a thin veneer of soil over bare rock.

Vaccinium at Stockton
Blue Ridge Blueberry (Vaccinium pallidium) with Stockton Lake in the background

About this time, the spring rains decided to return, and I left the land of miniatures to go enjoy my nice dry car. Glades are fun, but I’m no Selaginella, and I can’t just go dormant when conditions shift, so I shifted my conditions back to my room for the night.

At some point I’ll cover the limestone glades, especially the dolomite ones with which I’m much more familiar, having spent a fair bit of time on them when I was actively not on this blog. In the meantime, go check out your local glades or barrens- there’s a lot more going on than you expect!

Doves, Deadwood, and Dozens of Redbacks! – Vermilion County IL

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine (Colin Dobson, of ) expressed interest in looking for salamanders. The warming temperatures of early March and a rain a few days before made it possible that we’d get a few, though it was early days yet. Colin typically finds most of the rare birds in my area, so it’d be nice to be the “expert” this time. I took Trevor along with me, and part of the drive over, in Stonington Illinois, he had to stop for the bathroom at a Casey’s. Stonington, IL, is deep in the Great Corn Desert, as I call it. The grain elevators there provide tons of sustenance for doves, and draws in good numbers of Rock Pigeons, Mourning Doves, and Eurasian Collared Doves. The latter I’d yet to photograph in 2021, so I got out of the car and spotted a dove.

It was not a Eurasian Collared Dove…

Stonington WWDO
White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica)

WHITE-WINGED DOVE!!! This Southwestern species has been expanding its range northwards and eastwards, but to find one randomly in a hackberry above a Casey’s in central Illinois is a wee bit unexpected, to say the least. This really jump-started an excellent day.

skunk cabbage
Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)

A couple hours further east, we all arrived at the site, where I found the “first” flower of spring, a Skunk Cabbage. They smell terrible and are fly/beetle pollinated.

Soil centipede (Strigamia sp.)

I started looking under logs and found this tiny little soil centipede. These hunt small underground insects and wander through tunnels in the soil, like little multilegged worms.

Four-toed Sal
Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum)

A few logs later the state-threatened Four-toed Salamander appeared. These little guys are rare due to habitat loss as they require moss-covered logs in temporary wetlands surrounded by high-quality deciduous forest. This one wasn’t breeding, and I don’t touch the breeding habitat because the mats of mosses Four-toed need for breeding are especially sensitive. Four-Toed lay their eggs under moss in summertime, and if the moss isn’t thick or wet enough it won’t keep the eggs consistently moist. Thus, Four-toed are fairly sensitive to disturbance.

Jumping Bristletail
Jumping Bristletail (Pededontus saltator?)

A strange insect appeared nearby- a Jumping Bristletail of some sort. I’m guessing Pededontus saltator based on bugguide, but these unusual detritivorus insects are not exactly easy to find information about online.

Northern Zigzag Salamander?
Northern Zigzag Salamander (Plethodon dorsalis)

Under another piece of wood was a cousin of the Red-backed Salamander, the Northern Zigzag, distinguishable by the wavy-margined back stripe extending all the way down the tail.

Lined earwig and Leadback
Lead Phase Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) and Lined Earwig (Doru taeniatum)

We turned upslope to avoid walking across a sensitive seepage habitat, and sharing the space under a log on the hillside were a lead-backed Red-backed Salamander and the uncommon Lined Earwig, a more southern species rarely found in Illinois. Most earwigs in the Midwest are European Earwigs, an introduced species common in gardens.

Lebia analis
Lebia analis

The “weird bug” number increased as we ventured upslope, with Lebia analis, a ground beetle, hanging out under a few leaves. The species name often gets a couple of chuckles.

Deadwood Borer Caterpillar
Deadwood Borer (Scolecocampa liburna)

One log we found had a Deadwood Borer caterpillar in it- this caterpillar feeds on rotting wood and acts both as a beneficial decomposer and a great source of food for woodpeckers.

Spotted Salamander
Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)

At the top of the slope, we found our largest salamander yet- Spotted Salamander! These were likely moving downslope to breed in the nearby pools- by the time of this posting, they’ve probably gone and done so a month back.

Wood Frog
Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus)

Simultaneously, my other friend with me found this Wood Frog, which we put into a small plastic box I use to hold specimens. Wood Frogs are uncommon in Illinois, typically only found in the more intact regions of the state ecology-wise. They’re one of the first frogs to breed in the state, and a personal favorite with their little masks and golden eyes.

Silvery Salamander (Ambystoma laterale x jeffersonium)

The rarest species of the day came seconds later, as we found a Silvery Salamander… these are technically not a species. Parthenogenic (self-cloning) salamanders of a hybrid lineage combining Jefferson’s and Blue-spotted Salamanders, Silvery Salamanders were formerly known as Ambystoma platineum but are now considered just hybrids. They only occur within a tiny strip of intact forest on the eastern edge of Illinois, becoming much more common to the East where their two parent species overlap. Ironically neither parent species occurs at this site, and several years of studies have backed this up. Much of the research on these Unisexual hybrids has occurred at this site.

After spotting a Dekay’s Brown Snake, we left this first snake of the year and returned to the cars.

Dekay's Brownsnake
Dekay’s Brown Snale (Storeria dekayi)

On my way out, I flipped over one last rock and uncovered SIX Red-backed Salamanders under the one rock. This species is not communal, so finding that many under one rock is unusual! Furthermore, the individuals here are a mix of lead and red-backed forms. I carefully replaced the rock and moved on, having had a delightful day.

Six Redbacks!
Eastern Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus)

Unfortunately, I’m going to have to end this blogpost on a downer. This spot has become known to some rather unscrupulous herpers who didn’t put cover objects back and whom somehow ended up crushing Four-toed and Silvery Salamanders, resulting in the deaths of several individuals of those species as well as Red-backed Salamanders. In turn, this has pissed off biologists who used nearby vernal ponds as a study site, and state researchers who had these rare species listed for a reason. This sort of thing gives amateurs like me and some of my friends a bad reputation, which I actively try to avoid. As a result of this, I heavily encourage readers of this blog to wait a considerable amount of time before revisiting this habitat, to allow for it to recover. I certainly do not plan to return at any point in the next year, as much as I’d love to go back and inspect some of the plants.