Shedding Snakes

Most animals (including humans!) shed their skin. As humans, we usually shed our skin in small pieces and we hardly ever notice it, but snakes sometimes shed theirs in one piece – kind of like how we take off our socks! As humans grow, our skin stretches with us and continues to grow as well. As a snake grows, it’s skin stays the same size and eventually, new growth is not possible and the snake is forced to shed. Snakes also shed their skin to get rid of any parasites on their skin. Parasites are organisms that steal their food from the organism they are living on or inside of. 

How can you tell when a snake is going to shed? A snake’s eyes will turn a blue/milky color when they are ready to shed. Why do their eyes turn this color? Snakes have a protective scale over their eye and when the old eye scale starts to separate from the newly formed scale it has fluid buildup and causes the blue/milky color we see (Image 1). During this time period at River Legacy, we try not to handle our snakes because they cannot see and this can sometimes cause distress in the snake. When snakes are in the wild and are close to shedding they usually hide to avoid being attacked by predators. 

Snakes shed for their whole life, but as they get older it slows down. How often a snake sheds depends on the type of snake as well as their age. Young snakes may shed 1 to 2 times a month and older snakes may only shed 2 times a year. If you’re interested in learning more about snakes, please join us for our Spring Break Activities: Reptile Day, during the week of March 9-13! Stay tuned for more information about specific times.

This post was written by Samantha King, River Legacy Living Science Center naturalist.

Image 1. Raj, the corn snake with blue/milky eyes

Beautiful Beetles

Beetles. Everyone is familiar with them. From the time most of us start hearing about bugs and insects, beetles usually come up among the first groups we learn about. This makes perfect sense as there are roughly 400,000 species of them worldwide. To put this in perspective, this means that about 40 % of all insect species, and 25 % of all animal species are beetles!

River Legacy Parks is home to countless beetle species but there is a group of them that is particularly intriguing and special. These are the bess beetles, which belong to the Family Passalidae. They are a bright dark color and usually measure about 1 inch a half in length. Though most bess beetles are found in the tropics, there are some North American representatives. The River Legacy woods are among the places where they can be found in Texas. Bess beetles can be found inside of rotting logs or stumps. They are found there for two main reasons: 1. They consume decaying wood as part of their diet and 2. the females have to get into those tunnels and lay their eggs.

One of the most fascinating things about these beetles is they take care of their offspring. Bess beetles are considered to be presocial. This means that they exhibit some aspects of a social structure beyond just mating but are not fully social insects the way ants, bees, wasps, and termites are. The vast majority of insects do not take care of their offspring so this aspect sets the bess beetles apart.

Due to their color, sometimes they are hard to spot. But, if you look closely around a decaying log, you might be able to spot them. Any time of the year is a good time because decomposition is happening all the time. However, several have been spotted lately by our River Legacy staff. See if you can find it as well!

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Are Some River Legacy Trees Haunted?

After a brief late summer hiatus, we are back! Fall is fast approaching and one of the many things people anticipate with fall is Halloween! Though it is only September, if you walk around the trails of River Legacy, you might notice that some trees look like they are covered in spider webs, and a lot of them. Is the forest getting ready for October 31st? While we would like to thing so, these webs are a really cool natural phenomenon.

Often confused with spider webs, these webs are actually made by the caterpillar of the fall webworm moth (Hyphantria cunea). These caterpillars can produce webs that sometimes cover huge swaths of trees. They measure about 1 inch long and start eating leaves immediately after they hatch from an egg mass. The web is produced to form a cover the areas where they are feeding. Host trees include mulberry trees, oak trees, pecans, sweetgum, redbud, willow, and many other fruit-bearing trees. Late summer and early fall but it seems to depend on the location. For example, trees in the southern part of Texas start appearing with these webs as early as April.

Right now, the easiest place to find these webs is in areas alongside Snider Creek on the eastern side of the trail adjacent to our new parking lot on Margaret Drive, at the main entrance to River Legacy Parks. But, keep your eyes open, because they have appeared in many other parts of our forest in previous years. So, while you might think, these trees are Halloween decorations, they are just mother nature’s work for all of us to marvel and learn!

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The Many Benefits of Native Plants!

River Legacy Living Science Center is honored to be partnering with The Native Plant Society of Texas to help us restore, maintain and beautify our grounds using native plants. Member Josephine Keeney and her crew come once a month to plant and maintain beds around the Science Center and pond. If you are a regular visitor, you have probably seen the beautiful wildflowers along our pond.

Did you know that you can also add or convert your yard into a “native plant yard?” There are many benefits to incorporating native plants into your landscape, especially during the long, hot and dry Texas summers!

Why use native plants? They tend to be more tolerant of the climate and water availability for a particular area. Texas is considered to be home to about 5,000 native plants! Once established, these plants require little maintenance and are more drought tolerant than non-natives allowing the conservation of this precious resource. Just think, lower water bills!

Saving money is not the only benefit from having a native plant yard. Local wildlife is well adapted to them as food sources for seeds, nuts, fruit, and even eating the plant itself. Animals use them for shelters and habitats. Native plants support local pollinators who are vital for our food production. These plants are representatives of our regional biodiversity and preserve our history.

Where do we find them? How do I know what plant to put in the sun or in a shady or wet area? These questions and more can be answered by The Native Plant Society of Texas (npsot.org). Their mission is to “promote research, conservation and utilization of native plants and plant habitats of Texas through education, outreach and example.”

There will be even more beautiful beds in the months to come at the Science Center. Keep your eyes open and come back to visit often to see the variety!

Horsemint
Red Yucca

Baby Praying Mantis!

Students in 3rd and 4th grades will be learning some amazing facts about insects in our Insect Investigators Summer Class this July! Did you know that summer is a very important time for the life cycle of many insects, especially the praying mantis.

Baby mantis seen against the backdrop of a leaf

Mantises (order Mantodea), first lay their eggs in autumn, which start to hatch in the spring. Late spring and summer, the nymphs (baby mantises) are in a period of growth and development and they tend to be seen more often because of this.  The babies hatch from an egg sac that is produced by the mother mantis using a special secretion from her abdomen. This egg sac is known as the ootheca. Color typically varies, but babies tend to be a different color than the adults. As the nymphs keep growing, they molt their exoskeleton. Depending on the species, some mantises can live from about 4 to 6 months but smaller species average a lifespan of only about 4 to 8 weeks.

When you visit the Science Center, look around the Turk’s cap plants on the outside terrace. Nymphs will tend to be underneath leaves or sitting on stems and they are fairly difficult to find due to their size and great camouflage. Nevertheless, with some patience, it is very possible that you will come across one. In addition, if you have children that would be interested in learning more about mantises and other amazing insects, our Insect Investigators summer class from July 15th to the 19th still has some open spots. Call 817.860.6752, ext. 102 to register or visit our website!

Spectacular Spiders: The Dark Fishing Spider

Dark fishing spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus)

River Legacy Park is home to hundreds of spider species. One very common spider species is the dark fishing spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus). This spider is primarily found on trees and it is most often seen in the month of May, although it can also be spotted all the way until September. Despite the fact that it is called a “fishing spider,” it does not live near water or fish. It is in fact, the most terrestrial, of the fishing spiders. It is quite big: females can measure anywhere from 15 to 26 millimeters whereas the males tend to be smaller, from 7 to 13 millimeters. The female produces egg sacs that can contain up to 1,000 baby spiders inside!

Spiders serve many purposes in the ecosystem at River Legacy, mainly prey control. It is estimated that all of the world’s spiders consume about 400 to 800 tons of prey each year! Spiders are also a great group of organisms for learning a wide array of concepts: predation, invertebrate biology,  how venom works, the amazing design abilities of the animal kingdom, etc.. Learning about spiders can help in reducing arachnophobia.

During our Spectacular Spiders Summer Class, students will learn all about spiders and why they are cool and interesting. Space is filling up quickly though so visit our website to sign up and learn more information. We hope to see your child there!

 

 

 

 

 

Update On Mexican Buckeye Tree!

Mexican Buckeye growing

Last November, through our brand new Saturday Conservation program, we planted a small Mexican buckeye tree (Ungnadia speciosa) provided by the City of Arlington with the help of some awesome volunteers. The tree was already roughly 4 feet tall and it was in a state of dormancy, meaning it had no leaves growing at the time. Fast forward to May and the tree is doing quite well!

Mexican buckeye is a small tree that grows in scattered places throughout central and western Texas, southern New Mexico, and northeastern Mexico. It grows to about 30 feet in height and produces beautiful, bright pink flowers. When pollinated, these flowers produce a capsule-looking fruit with 3 black seeds inside of it. Its seeds are considered poisonous for consumption. It is a great attractor for hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators!

 

Mexican buckeye seeds

The planting of this tree could not have been possible without the amazing help of a handful of participants for our Saturday Conservation program. This program aims to educate and engage the public in issues regarding conservation and preservation of nature all around us.

Join us for the last Conservation Saturday program for this Spring on May 18th at 11 A.M. The topic will be all about reptile conservation, what the status of reptiles is in our area and worldwide and some ways people can help in reptile conservation. It is a FREE event though space is limited. If you would like to attend, you may give us a call at 817.860.6752 to R.S.V.P. If you would like more information about the program, you may call 817.860.6752 extension 125. We hope to see you all there. Information for Saturday Conservation days for the 2019-2020 year will be posted in the summer. Stay tuned!

Diversity of Plants

Spring time is the perfect time to go out and discover the variety of plant species found in River Legacy Park. Most plants at River Legacy are contained within the flowering plants, as are most plants around the world. These are known as angiosperms. They produce flowers and a fruiting body to protect the seeds once pollination has occurred. Species include the saw greenbrier (Smilax bona-nox), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera), Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana), etc. In addition to the flowering plants, there are 3 other major groups of plants with River Legacy representatives as well.

The mosses constitute a group of plants that like to grow in dense clumps on a typically moist surface. This could be a log on the ground, the bark of a tree, a bench, a boulder, etc.. They are non-vascular, meaning they have no system with which to transport a lot of nutrients and water. They are also very short and produce spores instead of seeds.

Ferns form the other major group of River Legacy plants. In contrast with mosses, ferns are vascular and are bigger. In addition, ferns have compound leaves divided into many leaflets. And, while ferns produce spores like mosses, these are located underneath the leaves of the plant instead of at the tip of the shoots. You might be able to find the bluntlobe cliff fern (Woodsia obtusa) along the trails near Snider Creek at the back of the Science Center parking lot. You have to look closely on the cliff itself to find this plant!

The gymnosperms is another group of plants that produce seeds instead of spores. The difference between them and the angiosperms is that gymnosperms do not produce a fruit to protect their seeds. Normally the seeds are in the form of a cone. One of the gymnosperms that makes River Legacy its home is the eastern juniper or red cedar tree (Juniperus virginiana). Look for a 16 to 60 foot tall tree with light reddish or brown bark with leaves that look like needles instead of a typical leaf shape.

Plants are awesome! We hope you will explore the trails surrounding River Legacy Living Science Center or in River Legacy Park so that you can enjoy them!

3 groups of plants are represented in this picture! Moss can be seen in the background, some ferns can be found at the top left-hand corner and in the middle right section, and a small flowering plant can be seen at the bottom right-hand corner!

 

 

 

 

Mammals, Reptiles, and Creepy Crawlers, Oh My!

Magnificent Mammals – Dec. 26!

Over the past couple of posts, we have talked about many of the mammals, reptiles, and other vertebrates that live in the woods of River Legacy. Often times, though, not enough attention is paid to the small critters (usually referred to as “creepy crawlies” or “creepy crawlers”) that often inhabit the forest floor. These include insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates.

Throughout history, these animals have traditionally been seen as scary, off-putting, or unpleasant for various reasons. But, in reality, the vast majority of them are just as fascinating as other more charismatic animals (mammals and reptiles), just as important to the healthof the River Legacy forest, and not aggressive. Many of these are decomposers and, thus, they form a key component of the energy flow in the forest. Several of them also prey on other animals that could be detrimental if their numbers got out of control. At the same time, many are important food items for other animals higher up in the food chain. The list of their attributions to the environment is endless. Join us to learn more about these Creepy Crawlers as well as mammals and reptiles during our Winter Break Family Fun Activities!

Radical Reptiles – Dec. 27!

As we wrap up another year (where did that time go!?) and we enjoy the holidays with time off work and in the good company of family and friends, it is a perfect time to learn more about these “creepy” critters (and other animals) and the very special place they occupy here at River Legacy Park and the Science Center. And, with that in mind, we invite you to River Legacy Living Science Center’s Winter Break Family Fun! From December 26 to December 28, you get to learn more about Magnificent Mammals, Radical Reptiles, and Creepy Crawlers. Get up close with some of our mammals, reptiles, and invertebrates followed by a related craft with time slots ranging from 10:30 am, 11:30 am and 1:30 pm. For more information on how to purchase your admission, you can visit www.riverlegacy.org/calendar or to check out a complete schedule of activities, click here. We hope to see you there!

Creepy Crawlers – Dec. 28!

 

 

 

Hibernation or brumation?

How do animals survive the winter? Winters at River Legacy tend to be milder than in most places around the country because of our location. Still, there are periods when the temperature drops to well below freezing and, sometimes, lingers there for days. Snow and ice events are also expected at least a couple of times during the winter.

Birds have adaptations for surviving the winter that are unique to them. We will talk about them in an upcoming post! For now, we are going to be focused on mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. All of these groups go into a state of dormancy during which they stop growing, grind their physical activities to a halt, and their metabolism significantly slows down. But there are differences in how each group does it.

Hibernation refers to the process mammals go through whereas brumation applies to

Reptiles, such as this red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), brumate during the winter

reptiles and amphibians. During hibernation, mammals go into a full state of sleep. They slow their breathing and heart rate down to almost full stop and rely on fatty deposit for their energy during this time. They do not wake up from hibernation at all until spring arrives. How do they get their fatty deposits? By eating more and more in the fall. Bats are really the only group that lives at River Legacy that truly hibernate. Other River Legacy mammals such as bobcats, skunks, fox squirrels, coyotes, raccoons, and opossums do not hibernate and instead just seek shelter in someplace warm and do not come out very much OR are able to be fairly active while winter lasts.

Bats, such as this Eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis), are the only River Legacy group of mammals that truly hibernate.

Brumation, on the other hand, is the process by which reptiles and amphibians survive the winter. During brumation, these animals slow down as well but not to the point of almost stopping heart rate and breathing altogether. One key difference between brumation and hibernation is the fact that brumating animals are able to wake up from time to time in the middle of the winter. This is known as punctuated activity. Why do they need to wake up from time to time? Unlike mammals, which can survive the winter without water, reptiles and amphibians need it periodically. Another key difference is found in the method by which the animals obtain their energy. Mammals, as mentioned, rely on fatty deposits. Reptiles and amphibians instead use glycogen for their energy needs. Reptiles also can survive with very little oxygen during brumation because of this glycogen storage. Examples of River Legacy reptiles and amphibians that brumate include frogs, toads, snakes, and turtles.

If you would like to learn more about the winter adaptations of mammals and reptiles, we invite you to join our Winter Break Activities that are going to take place from December 26th through the 28th. For more information, please visit www.riverlegacy.org/calendar. We hope to see you there!