Once in a Blue Moon

Full Moon Photographed From Apollo 11 Spacecraft, www.nasa.gov

The year 2020 has been remarkable for many reasons, but especially for stargazers and astronomers alike. This year we have had/will have 13 full moons, two being super moons, and one which is a blue moon on Halloween! 

Let’s break this down a little more. On Halloween, October 31st, there will be a full moon. The timing of a full moon on Halloween only happens every 18-19 years! One might even say it happens once in a blue moon… This year’s full moon on Halloween is also considered a blue moon. Unfortunately, that does not mean the moon will be tinted blue. The term blue moon has to do with timing. Moon cycles are 29.5 days long, so there is usually only one full moon each month. However, sometimes months are longer than 29 days, so it is possible to have two full moons in one month. That second full moon of the month is considered a blue moon.

Full moons may sound like a spooky sight, and they can even cause some interesting animal encounters. Imagine you are outside at night going for a walk in the woods and you see a bright blue/green glowing animal creeping across the forest floor. You may think you are seeing some alien life form, but it’s actually just a scorpion! 

Scorpions under UV light. Credit: Lizardguy/Flickr

So why on earth would a scorpion need to glow? To answer that question you need to understand scorpions and their lifestyle. Scorpions are nocturnal predators that hunt for their food at night. When there is a full moon, scorpions can be seen glowing, which is actually fluorescing. Fluorescing is when the molecules become excited by energy, usually from a light source, and then the molecule relaxes back to its ground or “normal” state. This phenomenon can be recreated with scorpions during the sunny hours of the day by using a UV light. There are a few theories as to why scorpions fluoresce under the moonlight. Some scientists think that the glow may help scorpions find each other. Another possibility is that scorpions use it like sunscreen. However, the leading theory being developed by California State University arachnologist Carl Kloock, is that the scorpions use their fluorescence as a way to tell if they should go out and hunt or not. If scorpions are really desperate for a meal, then they will hunt regardless of the moonlight outside. However, if the scorpion is not particularly hungry and there is a full moon out, they may decide to stay hidden and avoid the moonlight. But none of these theories have been fully proven, so your guess is as good as ours! If you are interested in seeing a scorpion fluoresce then be sure to come to our Coffee and Creatures event on October 31st! This event features guided hikes at 11 AM, 1 PM, and 3 PM.  See live animals, receive prize bags, and enjoy free coffee provided by Salter Bros. Coffee and hot chocolate! $5 for ages 3 and up. FREE to ages 2 and under. Click here to register now!

Daphne the Opossum

Daphne, June 2020

Here at River Legacy, we are a home to many animals that cannot be released into the wild for one reason or another. Our newest animal ambassador, Daphne the opossum, is no exception. 

Before we get into Daphne’s story, we should cover some opossum basics first. When baby opossums are born they find their way into their mother’s pouch. Yes, you read that correctly! Opossums have pouches and they are the only marsupial in North America. Those babies will stay in the pouch for 55-60 days and then they climb out and ride on the mother’s back for 4-6 weeks. Daphne was about three month old when she would have been riding on her mother’s back and unfortunately, was attacked by a dog. Thankfully, Daphne survived due to the great care given to her by some amazing rehabbers. However, Daphne did lose the external part of her ear and an eye on her right side. Daphne doesn’t let it slow her down, as she is very curious and loves to climb and explore. 

Daphne, September 2020

Daphne has earned the nickname “Hou-daphne” (like Houdini). The next morning after Daphne arrived, our Naturalist found her enclosure empty with the latches still in the closed position. After searching the entire animal room, Daphne was safely found on the second shelf wrapped up in a pouch inside a box and sleeping soundly. Since the incident, we have made sure that her enclosure is “opossum” proof and she has not wandered out again! Daphne was only 5 months old when she came to River Legacy on June 9th and was small enough to squeeze out of her enclosure. Daphne isn’t so small now and is growing fast from all the yummy treats she gets. Daphne’s favorite treats are boiled eggs, cheese sticks, and grapes. 

Opossums are misunderstood by many and are sometimes treated poorly by people. Opossums play a really important role in the ecosystem because they eat about 5,000 ticks every year, and if you didn’t know, ticks can cause some pretty harmful disease in humans. Opossums very rarely get rabies due to their body temperature being slightly lower than most other mammals. Opossums also eat venomous snakes and are immune to the venom that they inject through their bites. The next time you see an opossum, now you’ll know a bit more about them and the important role they play! We hope you get to meet Daphne soon!

What You Might Not Know About Venom

Snake venom is a substance that is injected via fangs into the body that can cause harm and sometimes death. Snakes use venom to help defend themselves as well as to demobilize their prey. There are a handful of venomous snake species in North Texas that we all keep an eye out for when walking the trails here at River Legacy. In North Texas alone there are several venomous snakes including the coral snake, several different rattlesnakes, cottonmouth aka water moccasin, eastern copperhead, and the broad-banded copperhead. 

Certainly, getting bit by a venomous snake is the opposite of beneficial, but do you know that copperhead venom is being used in today’s research as a treatment for cancer? You read that right! There can be a beneficial side to the venom that we do our best to avoid at all costs.

There are reports dating back to the 1930s of copperhead venom being used to treat cancer. Cancer is a well known disease that happens when the cells that make up our body “loose control” and over replicate and grow, causing tumors that can cause other health problems. Snake venom works by stopping the clotting/clumping of blood cells and also hurting the nervous system. The proteins in copperhead venom have been shown to prevent cancer cells from attaching to other cells. The venom has also been shown to decrease the formation of new blood vessel cells in breast cancer in mice studies.

The research doesn’t stop with copperheads; many other venoms are being looked at for treatments for other diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and strokes. So while venomous snakes may scare you next time you see one, you will be reminded of the important role that they have in our lives other than being free rodent control! 

Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6162746/

Great Backyard Bird Count

Do you have 15 minutes to spare? If you answered yes you can help scientists collect data on the distribution and abundance of birds through the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). The GBBC started in 1998 by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. This year (2020) the GBBC is February 14-17. Participants can count from any location around the world and for any amount of time no less than 15 minutes. All you need to do is create a tally of the different birds observed. Not to worry if you’re not an expert birder; all levels are welcome! 

Bird populations are forever changing, which makes it important for scientists to track their numbers. This is a huge and difficult task for a handful of people to conquer. That is why scientists need the help of citizens to collect information. The data collected from the GBBC can help scientists understand if certain bird species are increasing or decreasing over time. Any big changes are indicators of environmental changes that are affecting the birds. GBBC information also provides a snapshot of the different kinds of birds that live in different areas. In 2019, GBBC participants from 100 countries helped to count over 6,800 species on more than 200,000 checklists.

If you’re interested in participating and need more information on how to create an account and how to submit observations visit the link here: https://gbbc.birdcount.org/get-started/ 

River Legacy will be holding a GBBC festival on February 15th from 10 am – 2 pm. Come join us for guided family bird walks/group counts, live animal presentations and plenty of owl-some crafts and activities! We will also have some im-peck-able exhibitors such as Fort Worth Audubon Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Fal-Tech Inc. with live birds! Come and fla-mingle with us. We hoot to see you there!

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!