3 Things that You Can Start Doing Right Now to Reduce your Environmental Impact

We all know how tricky and expensive it can be to alter your daily routine and make changes to reduce your environmental impact. While making those big changes are great, we all need an easy place to start! Here’s what you can do right now to help our planet:

Western Hampshire of Earth
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org
Western Hampshire of Earth
Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org

1. Delete those old emails! That email sitting in your spam folder for an expired 20% off coupon to a store you shopped at once surprisingly has a negative impact on the environment. While emails may seem like an eco-friendly alternative to traditional mail since there is no physical waste of paper, the process of sending and storing emails on servers uses electricity, and oftentimes that electricity is created with fossil fuels that release carbon emissions into the atmosphere. It is estimated that just one email can create 0.3 to 50 grams of carbon dioxide. To put that in perspective a paper clip is about 1 gram, so while 0.3 of that may seem like a small number those emails add up!

Insect on a yellow flower
Insect on a yellow flower

2.Cut the strings on your disposable masks when you throw them away. A lot of us have heard about cutting up the plastic soda can holders and this same practice can be used on the ear loops of the single-use face masks. When these strings are left uncut and they find their way into the environment,  animals can get stuck and tied up in the strings. This can really hurt that animal as it may limit their movement if they need to search for food or make a quick escape from a predator. 

3. Stop idling your car in drive through lanes. The next time you’re in the drive-through lane picking up your coffee consider turning your car off in between moving forward. Some newer cars already do this on their own! If you speculate that you will be idling your car in a drive through lane for longer than 10 seconds, you are saving yourself gas and reducing carbon emissions by turning your car off and then restarting before pulling forward. An alternative to this would simply be parking and going in to place your order so that your car can be completely shut off while you make your purchases. 

The idea behind this blog post is to inform the reader on ways that they can make small changes in their life to make an impact. If you have more suggestions please comment on one of our posts we’d love to hear your ideas!

Samantha King
Naturalist

What’s Blooming at River Legacy?

After a week stuck indoors from the snowstorm that hit us mid February, we are all excited to see some first glimpses of spring. While some plants may have suffered from the cold, we are seeing a lot of plants that benefited from the precipitation. Come to River Legacy and see if you can find these 5 plants that are blooming NOW!

Eastern Redbud

1. Redbud. This plant is a member of the legume family which means it grows bean pods. The flowers that are blooming now will bloom for a total of 2-3 weeks and are a bright magenta color that becomes a light pink over time. When the red bud’s leaves emerge they are heart shaped, look reddish and slowly change to a dark green and are about 2- 6 inches long. If you plant this tree in your yard you can attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and honey bees!

Wood Violet

2. Wood Violet. This small flower can be seen directly off of the trail and comes in many different shades of purple, blue, and even white. Wood violets have heart shaped leaves that are a good source of vitamins A and C. However, don’t eat the wood violets you see in the park because eating the wrong plant can cause some serious illnesses!  

Bedstraw on pant leg

3. Bedstraw. This plant is very abundant and is in the same family as coffee! Bedstraw, commonly called catchweed, has tiny hooks that act like Velcro. If you get close enough to this plant while walking by it may hitch a ride on your pant leg or your dog’s hair. 

Mexican Plum

4. Mexican Plum. This tree has snowy white flowers that appear in clusters before the leaves develop. While the flowers resemble snow, the blooming of this tree in March has traditionally meant that for Texans winter is over! Phew, that’s good news! *wipes sweat off brow* Like the name of this tree suggests, there are plums that ripen in late summer that are great for attracting birds and fruit eating mammals.

Golden Groundsel

5. Golden groundsel. This plant is one of the earliest bloomers of the year. If you come to River Legacy Living Science Center you will notice plenty of these yellow flowers in our parking lot now! When this plant goes to seed it forms a white fluff that helps disperse the seeds, like dandelions. Because of this, it is said that the botanist who named this flower was reminded of their grandpa and so the golden groundsel is often referred to as “Old Man.”

Some of these gorgeous blooms can only be seen for a few weeks so make sure to get out and stop by River Legacy to experience these spring blooms!

Samantha King
Naturalist

What’s Up with Tarantulas Having Bald Butts?

Brazilian Black and White Tarantula
(Nhandu coloratovillosus)
shows off two bald patches on abdomen where urticating hairs have been flicked

If you have visited River Legacy Science Center recently and had the opportunity to see the 100 arachnids in The Art and Science of Arachnids traveling exhibit, you may have noticed some tarantulas with bald patches on their bottoms (aka abdomens). What could the reason for this possibly be?

A lot of animals have defense mechanisms; opossums play dead, lizards lose tails, even humans have fight or flight reactions to avoid danger. When you think of a tarantula’s defense mechanisms your first thought is probably their bites and/or venom. However, they also have urticating hairs located on their abdomen. Urticating hairs are thorny bristles that can be flicked by the back legs that can then lodge themselves in the attacker’s skin and cause an allergic reaction. One way these hairs are used is as a passive defense. Tarantulas place the urticating hairs in the egg sac to protect it from other arthropods looking for a snack. Urticating hairs are also used as an active defense against predators. When used for active defense, the tarantula uses its back legs to flick the hairs from the abdomen into the air thus forming a flying cloud of ouchie! If these predators are unlucky and any of the hairs make contact with their skin it can cause an uncomfortable rash. This rash is meant to deter predators from eating the tarantula. When tarantulas molt to grow in size the lost urticating hairs are replaced along with any legs that may have been lost!

Mexican Red Knee Tarantula
(Brachypelma smithi) 
has all urticating hairs intact

When you check out The Art and Science of Arachnids exhibit, you may notice that not all of the tarantulas have this bald patch. While some of the tarantulas have a calmer temperament and simply do not flick the hairs as often, there are also some that do not have any hairs to flick. Tarantulas can be divided into two groups; old world and new world. This classification refers to the parts of the world the tarantulas come from. Old world being from Asia, Australia, Africa, and Europe, and the new world being North and South America. The classification also refers to a few other characteristics, including those urticating hairs we talked about. Almost all new world tarantulas have urticating hairs and old world tarantulas do not. 

If you haven’t had the opportunity to see The Art and Science of Arachnids exhibit, there is still time! This limited-time exhibit runs until February 27th, 2021. Want to learn more about another arachnid we have on this exhibit? Check out the Nature Notes blog post on scorpions and why they glow!

Autumn is Here and So Are the Birds!

Autumn is in full swing at River Legacy and life in the forest is experiencing some changes. We have covered in previous posts what some of those are. Today, we will primarily focus on the fall bird migration and the species you can enjoy seeing!

Autumn migration typically starts in late summer, around the middle to end of the month of August. The reason why many species migrate during this time is their need to find suitable temperatures and food sources in order to survive. North America is slowly entering the coldest part of the year and many species would not do well in that type of condition. Food becomes scarce so birds are forced to go back to warmer, more rich places in the southernmost parts of the U.S. (including northern Texas), Mexico, Central America, or even South America. River Legacy is fortunate to be located right in the middle of the Central Flyway, a migratory route that spans a wide swath of the central United States, Canada, and Mexico.

So what are some of the species that people can start to see this autumn and are expected to stay through the remainder of autumn and winter?

Several waterfowl are included in this group. Species such as the Canada goose (Branta canadensis), wood duck (Aix sponsa), blue-winged teal (Anas discors), and northern shoveler (Spatula clypeata) are fairly common sights.

Another group with several autumn and winter representatives are the sparrows. Some of those are the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), the white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), the eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), and the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), among many.

Some woodpeckers, birds of prey, and other song birds also start to appear this time of year. These include, but are not in any way limited to, the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), the northern flicker (Colaptes auratus), the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula), the cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), the brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), and the sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus).

Lastly, in addition to these birds moving in, you can still enjoy some of the birds that live at River Legacy all year-round. Among the common year-round species that live here are the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), the northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), the barred owl (Strix varia), the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), the Bewick’s wren (Thryomanes bewickii), the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), the downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), and the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis).

Have you had some exciting bird sightings around River Legacy Park? Snap a picture and show us what you’ve seen by tagging us on Facebook @riverlegacyparks or on Instagram @livingsciencecenter!

Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)
Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)
Blue-winged teal (Anas discors)

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 see our new traveling exhibit, The Art and Science of Arachnids, featuring 100 live arachnids! Exhibit opens December 1. Click here to learn more!

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 1/2 inches 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 in the same way as ants, bees, wasps, and termites. 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 them as well!

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