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!

 

Recent Bobcat Sightings

Bobcats (Lynx rufus) are well-known inhabitants of our woods! These cats are usually very secretive but, every once in a while, they are spotted walking openly on our paved trails where people can see them. Unlike most mammals, bobcats are still active despite the increasingly colder days. During fall and winter, they become more diurnal as their prey (rabbits and rodents, mainly) is more active at daylight during those seasons. So, it is possible that more bobcats are going to be seen in the next coming weeks and months. Bobcats, in general, are not aggressive species. It is incredibly rare for bobcats to present danger to people. Nevertheless, here are some things you should know if you happen to encounter a bobcat:

  • Stay within a reasonable distance of the bobcat. If you start getting too close to it, it might think you present a threat. Naturally, it would want to defend itself.
  • If the bobcat starts to walk toward you, which is incredibly rare, slowly start backing away. It is important that you do not run as this might scare the bobcat.
  • Do not touch or attempt to feed the bobcat. Bobcats are wild animals and you always want to minimize opportunities for them to bite. As it is the case with most wild mammals, wild bobcats may be rabid at times. Feeding any wild animal can cause harm to the animal, and there are plenty of food resources in River Legacy Park.
  • If a bobcat decides to walk by you, as long as you do not try to kick it or make sudden movements, the bobcat will just continue on its way.
  • Always have your pets on a controlled leash. The last thing you want is any altercation between a wild bobcat and your dog.
  • Be sure to take a picture and/or video of your bobcat encounter from a safe distance!

Seeing bobcats is a neat experience and if you find yourself in that situation and, as long as you follow these precautions, you will be able to enjoy being in the presence of these wonderful cats!

 

Bobcat (Lynx rufus) seen near the entrance of River Legacy Living Science Center last Saturday, November 10th, 2018!

Devil’s Cigar – A River Legacy Icon

Autumn is in full swing and this is the prime season for finding the sometimes elusive devil’s cigar mushroom (Chorioactis geaster). This mushroom is a very special mushroom because it can only be found in certain counties in Texas (Dallas, Hunt, Denton, Collin, Tarrant, Travis, Hays, Guadalupe) as well as two locations in Japan (Nara and Miyazaki prefectures). Tarrant county, of course, is the home of River Legacy!

This mushroom is found growing on or right next to stumps or dead roots of cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia). It does not grow on any other tree here in Texas. In Japan, it has been seen growing on oak trees (Quercus spp.) as well as Japanese sapphireberry (Symplocos myrtacea). It essentially looks like a dark brown cigar but changes its appearance once it opens up to release its spores. When it does that, usually a hissing sound can be heard and eventually the mushroom looks like a star. This is why it is also known as the Texas star mushroom!

Mycologists (scientists who study mushroom and related organisms) do not yet know why it is found only in Texas and Japan. A 2004 genetic study showed that the two populations have been separated since at least the early Miocene (roughly 19 million years ago!) This rules out the possibility that humans could have moved from Texas from Japan or vice-versa. Therefore, it is still not known why it has a disjunct distribution. Just another interesting fact about this mushroom!

The devil’s cigar fruiting body usually appears between October and April since it prefers somewhat cooler and wetter weather. This year, it appears that the rain we have had for the past month is creating good conditions for it. We invite you to take a look around River Legacy Park and the trails around River Legacy Living Science Center to see if you can find a devil’s cigar fruiting body. Look around dead stumps of cedar elm trees. No worries if you can’t find it; You can always visit our Discovery Room, where you can interact with a replica of a devil’s cigar and hear for yourself the hissing sound it makes when it releases its spores!

Devil’s Cigar before opening.

Just starting to open.

Fully open.

 

 

 

Why is water important anyway?

Water is a vital resource for life. We have all seen or heard this statement since we can remember. But, what makes water unique for living organisms, from humans to blue whales to bacteria to mushrooms?

While entire articles and books can be written on the subject, here are just a few facts that make water essential:

  • Water has the amazing ability to carry out a vast amount of chemical processes in contrast to many other liquids because of its chemical structure. This allows for humans, plants, and animals to undergo all of the processes they need for survival, from digestion to respiration to photosynthesis. No other liquid would allow for ALL of these to take place.
  • Water prevents things from becoming dry. Since most organisms are majority water, this is key for survival in harsh conditions such as the desert. Without it, animals and plants would literally dry up and harden, dying in the process.
  • Water actually becomes less dense as it freezes. This is something unique to water and it is the primary reason why ice floats. Without this property, our planet’s weather would be drastically different, affecting all life on Earth.
  • Water can absorb a lot of heat before it actually starts heating up in comparison to other liquids. This is the reason why areas where there is a massive body of water nearby tend to be cooler than inland areas (for example, cities by a lake or the ocean). This also makes water an incredibly effective cooling mechanism.

The list goes on and on. Water is constantly being cycled; it goes from the clouds in the form of rain, to the plants and animals in the ground and to reservoirs, lakes, and streams. From there, it either continues to flow until it eventually makes its way into the ocean or it goes to our homes for consumption after a rigorous purification process. Water from our homes eventually rejoins the cycle. All water then ends up in the ocean where it can evaporate into the atmosphere, ready to fall back down as rain. Despite this seemingly never-ending cycle, at the end of the day, water is a finite resource. There was a time when our planet did not have any water and that happening again in the future cannot be ruled out. Therefore, it is very important that we conserve water. Conserving water is also financially smart in the long-run, both for cities and people’s homes.

If you would like to know more about the purification process water goes through, allowing us to be good water conservationists, we invite you to our first Conservation Saturday event at 11 am, Sept. 22. There will be a family-friendly presentation on water conservation, and families will have a chance to create a water bottle water filter. Spaces are filling up quick, so if you would like to sign up, please call 817.860.6752 to RSVP. We hope to see you there!

Spider venom!

Last year, we talked about spiders and their benefits to nature. Today, we revisit spiders to talk about a very interesting trait they have – their venom. Almost all 46,000 spider species have venom. Fortunately for us, there are only a very few that can actually harm people. In our area, there are only two types of spiders of concern: the black widow and the brown recluse spider. Black widows are distinctively black and have a red or orange shape on the back of their belly while brown recluses tend to have a violin-like shape on the back of their thorax.

Spiders primarily use their venom to paralyze prey so they can eat it. The venom is injected into the insect through the spider’s fangs. Spider venom usually is one of two types. Certain spiders produce neurotoxins, which attacks the nervous system of the prey. Other spiders produce cytotoxins, which help in turning the prey into liquid form. This makes it easier for the spider to consume it. In many ways, spider venom is not that different from snake venom.

If you would like to watch a spider eat, we invite you to our public feedings on Fridays at 4:30 pm to see our Texas brown tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi) eat in his exhibit. Usually the venom will not be seen, but you can be assured the spider is using it to eat its food!

Left: Our Chilean rose hair tarantula eating a cricket. A venom drop, in white, can be seen on the right side of the mouth.

World Lizard Day

skink
Green anoles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

World Lizard Day was celebrated on Aug. 14. Herpetologists, pet owners, and nature enthusiasts commemorate this special day every year by increasing awareness about these amazing scaly animals, learning more about them and showing them appreciation. Here at River Legacy, we join in that celebration by sharing our knowledge of them and inviting you to appreciate them.

There are around 6,000 species of lizards alive in our world. Together with snakes, they form a group of reptiles known as the Squamates. They are cold-blooded, scale-covered animals that have generally four legs, ear holes and eyelids. The latter three characteristics are mainly what distinguishes them from snakes. The largest lizard in the world is the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) found in Asia and the smallest one is the dwarf gecko (Sphaerodactylus ariasae) found in the Caribbean.

In Texas, there are several species of lizards. Here at River Legacy, the most common include several types of skinks (Family Scincidae), the Texas spiny lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus), the green anole (Anolis carolinensis), and the Mediterranean gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus). While the Mediterranean gecko is not a native to the area, the other three are.

The Science Center’s wildlife ambassadors include skinks, green anoles and a bearded dragon. You can also spot anoles, Texas spiny lizards and skinks as they dart across our trails. This is the time of year they are out and about. You can find them on top of decaying logs or basking on a fence, bench, or tree trunk.

 

The Armadillo and the Bobcat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exiting the back doors of the Science Center, I headed out for a walk. To my right was a Texas persimmon, bordered by layers of the scarlet turk’s cap, a beautiful plant with flowers deeply red. The large stone steps escorted me down to the level of the trails.

Overhead hung vines, whose mustang grapes quietly tumble to the ground and are squished by herds of wandering feet. I walked further, passing the American pokeweed, a plant which hides its toxicity behind its blueberry-like appearance. To my left, a forking trail leads to an alleyway of poison ivy, appropriately labeled so that onlookers can observe without risk.

Finally, I reached my destination – the pedestrian bridge, whose sturdy wooden panels are upheld by the strength of red metal framing. Beneath this bridge flows Snider Creek, which on this day was dry from weeks of Texas heat and drought. I leaned over the edge to look.

Along the dry creek bed I saw movement. What was this bizarre creature? A medium-sized body, slender, coated in a thin layer of light brown fur. I struggled to identify it. But as it turned its head upward, facing me, the uniqueness of its facial structure with its tufted ears, disclosed its identity. I was looking at a bobcat, my first time seeing one in the park.

I was mesmerized by this sighting; I’d wanted to see a bobcat for quite some time. But as the cat ran away, and I began to excitedly return to the building, I heard another noise, this time along the bank that lines the creek. I looked to my left to see an armadillo just beside the bridge digging in the dirt, slowly heading in the same direction as the bobcat.

What an incredible walk this had been. To see a bobcat in the park is a rare privilege, but to see one within 50 feet of an armadillo is remarkable. These creatures are vastly different. Both are mammals, but that concludes their overlap. One is lengthy and thin, walking with the elegance of the feline family. The other is spherical and armored, trudging along. How strange, then, to see these incredibly different animals in such close proximity.

But this is what one encounters along the River Legacy trails. Each walk is different. Some are calm and quite; others are filled with the humming of cicadas and the chirping of birds. During some, one sees young turtles, ribbon snakes, or eastern cottontail rabbits. On a rare occasion one might spot a beaver wading in the pond, its uppermost layer of fur made dark by the water. And on some lucky days, as I was fortunate enough to experience, you may see the astounding variation of the natural world displayed in front of you, as bobcats and armadillos wander along the same creek.

Come visit our trails and let us know what you find.

Written by Josh Ripple, a Summer Intern at River Legacy Living Science Center and student at Stanford University.

Meet a Few of Our Wildlife Ambassadors!

Smokey the Western Rat Snake

Hi guys!! I am Smokey, a Western Rat Snake. I am the newest Animal Ambassador to River Legacy Living Science Center and the latest resident to our public exhibits. I was brought from the Fort Worth Nature Center because I needed a larger home.

I am 6 years old with a beautiful yellowish, tan color and irregular blotching from head to tail. I am active during the day, especially when I’m hungry! Hey, you can come see me eat every Friday at 4:30! Sometimes when I get disturbed I let out a hiss, but not to worry, I‘m not venomous, merely voicing my opinion.

Actually, my relatives and I get confused with rattlesnakes because we look alike and we both shake our tails, but Western Rat Snakes do not actually have a rattle. Generally, though, I am a nice girl so come on over and see me! I am so excited that I just got a larger home with lots of room to climb! I might be hiding up high, so look closely.

 

 

 

Poppy the Virginia Opossum

Poppy the Virginia Opossum found her way to River Legacy Living Science Center after she was rescued and rehabilitated from being hit by a car. Due to the injuries sustained, she was not able to be released back into the wild. This is unfortunate due to the many positive benefits opossums provide to an ecosystem.  She is very sweet and curious about her new home. She loves eating hard-boiled eggs, crickets and strawberries.

When people encounter this ambassador in the wild, the feelings are a mixed bag. Some think this nocturnal creature is either cute or ugly; others think it looks like a giant rat. The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is a very unique creature. It is North America’s only marsupial, which means it has a pouch. Average life span of a wild opossum is 1 to 3 years; life span of a captive opossum is 2 to 5 years.

Opossums have a remarkably robust immune system and show partial or total immunity to the venom of rattlesnakes, copperheads, and other pit vipers. (Remember, North Texas only has two venomous snakes, the rattlesnake and copperhead.)  Opossums are about eight times less likely to carry rabies than wild dogs. This is due to the fact that their core body temperature is lower than most mammals and the virus cannot live in this cooler environment.

Another benefit from having opossums in your neighborhood is that they will eat and therefore kill ticks that are in their fur.  Opossums are fastidious groomers.  A study by the Cary Institute for Ecosystem shows that an opossum may eat up to 5,000 ticks in a season. Ticks can cause a variety of issues for humans, including Lyme Disease.  Now, the opossum is not single-handedly stopping Lyme Disease, but if the opossum takes care of ticks in its own body, then those are less ticks in our yards and natural areas.

Beavers at River Legacy!

River Legacy is home to lots of very well-known mammal species such as bobcat, raccoon, squirrel, and armadillo. But, did you know that the North American beaver (Castor canadensis) also lives here? Here are some cool facts about one of River Legacy’s most secretive mammals.

  • Beavers are the second largest members of the rodents, after the South American capybara. They can weigh up to 71 pounds!
  • Beavers have an extra thick layer of fat under their skin. This helps with insulation from very cold water.
  • Beavers are incredible architects! They are able to construct their homes in rivers, streams, and/or lakes using twigs, mud, sticks, chewed-on trees, and other similar materials.
  • Beavers can remain underwater for up to 15 minutes!
  • Beavers can use their tail to slap it on the water to warn other beavers nearby of potential danger, such as predators.

Beavers are largely nocturnal. The best way to find them during the day is during the dawn hours. Walking the trails close to the Trinity River or Snyder Creek during this time could provide you with the wonderful experience of seeing a beaver! We’ve even spotted one in our pond recently at River Legacy Living Science Center!

Learn more about the beaver and other animal architects during our NEW Animal Architects Summer Class in July. Spaces are still available for the class which meets July 9-13 and July 16-20. Sign up online at www.riverlegacy.org or call 817.860.6752, ext. 102 to enroll today!