Wednesday, November 25, 2015

New Report on Chagas Disease Causes Storm of Concern

There has been a great increase in concern, and spread of misinformation recently in response to a press release and policy paper earlier this month. The publication advocates for more research into Chagas disease, caused by a parasitic organism, Trypanosoma cruzi, carried by assassin bugs in the subfamily Triatominae. The result in social media especially has been the misidentification of nearly every indoor "bug" or assassin bug as a "kissing bug" carrying Chagas.

Our most common U.S. "kissing bug," Triatoma sanguisuga

I wrote about our U.S. species of Triatoma in an earlier blog post, and that information remains largely correct. The post also includes information about species regularly confused with Triatoma species.

There is no question that it is in the best interest of governments and scientific institutions to devote more resources to treating and preventing tropical parasitic diseases as the climate continues to warm and new disease vectors spread northward; and as parasitic organisms develop resistance to conventional medicines. The elephant in the room, however, is the increasing population of human immigrants to the northern hemisphere in response to economic suffering and political violence or unrest.

Rural poverty continues to be the reason that many parasitic diseases proliferate, and the driving force behind immigration to nations experiencing relative prosperity and economic opportunities not found in the countries from which immigrants originate.

Victims often carry Chagas disease without showing obvious symptoms, serving as a reservoir for the parasite. Pets, especially dogs, and livestock can also carry the parasites responsible for Chagas. This should not make immigrants, legal or otherwise, enemies of native U.S. citizens, but I fear it is only a matter of time before it becomes a political football, just another excuse to "reform" our immigration policy.

Furthermore, our native species of Triatoma are poor vectors of the disease, which is transmitted when the insect defecates while feeding. The victim of the bite then scratches the parasite-infected feces into the bite wound, or may absent-mindedly rub their eye or other mucous membrane. Our kissing bug species are "potty trained" and nearly always poop after they have left their host.

My friend Richard Fagerlund gave a succinct and accurate assessment of the status of kissing bugs in New Mexico for a television news report, but his advice applies to the rest of the southern U.S. as well: There is simply nothing to be concerned about in urban areas, and simple preventive measures in rural areas, such as keeping your property free of wood rats, almost completely eliminates the prospect of encountering them.

Please help me spread the message that there is no need to panic, especially at this time of year. Kissing bugs are late spring and summer insects, only rarely showing up in autumn. If you are finding an insect in your home right now, it is almost certainly not a Triatoma.

Friday, November 20, 2015

New Mexico Dragonfly Blitz - Day 3

Saturday, August 29, found us wading up the Middle Fork of the Gila River, accessed at a point near the visitor center for Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. This is yet another scenic canyon, full of wonderful flora and fauna.

Middle Fork of the Gila River

Rubyspot damselflies were again abundant, but this time it was American Rubyspots, Hetaerina americana, that appeared to be most common. Despite how plentiful they were, I still can't seem to tell the difference between American and Canyon Rubyspot.

Male and female rubyspot damselflies

Our party quickly split up in different directions, so some folks saw dragonflies and damsels that others did not. Rather than dwell on what I missed, I delighted in what I saw, including another "lifer" species, the Pale-faced Clubskimmer, Brechmorhoga mendax. Someone netted a specimen the day before, but I was lucky enough to spot this specimen in flight and followed to where it perched. These dragonflies are in the skimmer family Libellulidae, but they look a lot more like clubtails (family Gomphidae). The fact that their eyes meet helps one to readily identify them as skimmers.

Pale-faced Clubskimmer dragonfly

I am also alert to non-odonate insects, and was pleased to find a couple of nice specimens of the Green Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca shoshone, clinging to cattails and grasses along the edge of the river, and on islands in the middle of the river.

Green Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca shoshone

A lovely metallic blue beetle with an orange pronotum (top segment of thorax) also caught my eye. I later determined it to be the V-marked Lady Beetle, Neoharmonia venusta ampla. This subspecies is found only from central Arizona to south Texas, and is not that commonly encountered.

V-marked Lady Beetle

There were animals other than insects, too. One of the cutest was an Arizona Toad that was hopping across a sand bar when we saw it.

Arizona Toad

Many of the dragonflies we saw were species we had seen the day before, but I managed better images of some of the clubtails, like the Dashed Ringtail, Erpetogomphus heterodon. The solid green thorax, with relatively few brown stripes, helps to identify this lovely species.

Dashed Ringtail dragonfly

The White-belted Ringtail, Erpetogomphus compositus, by contrast, has a heavily-striped thorax. It might be better called the Zebra Ringtail. The white "belt" refers to the central stripe on the side of the thorax, which is white, not yellow-green like the adjacent patches.

White-belted Ringtail dragonfly

A perfect male specimen of the Great Spreadwing damselfly, Archilestes grandis, perched on a reed right in front of some of us. This damselfly is so large that it could easily be mistaken for a dragonfly at first glance. This is a common species over much of the U.S., but was a "first" for at least a few members of our group.

Male Great Spreadwing damselfly

A bit more surprising was a male Powdered Dancer damselfly, Argia moesta, sharing mid-stream rocks with rubyspots and ringtails. Mature male specimens are covered in pale blue pruinosity, a kind of waxy bloom that easily rubs off. This was the only individual we saw the whole trip.

Male Powdered Dancer damselfly

Once again, threatening weather descended, and we had to exit the canyon a little sooner than we would have liked. On the way out, Heidi spotted a very cryptic flower scarab beetle, Euphoria sonorae, inside a flower.

Flower scarab beetle, Euphoria sonorae

After lunch, Heidi and I decided to see if the trail to the cliff dwellings was open. It is subject to closure in the face of impending electrical storms, but it was open, we paid the $5.00 entrance fee, and away we went. Crossing a bridge over a tributary of the Gila River, we found several caterpillars of a tiger moth in the genus Halysidota parading over the railings. Tents of the Fall Webworm, Hyphantria cunea, adorned many trees.

Caterpillar of Halysidota sp.

The trail is steep, with numerous switchbacks, but there are some nice views of the cliff dwellings.

There are benches to take a breather if you need it, but this one was already occupied by a ground squirrel when we got to it.

The cave dwellings are well worth the trip. The scale is quite surprising. Volunteers at the site help interpret the history and culture, and point the way to the exit, down a ladder!

Heidi at the cliff dwellings

The most obvious occupants of the site these days are the Crevice Spiny Lizards. The reptiles in turn provide a home to bright red mites that speckle various parts of the lizard, especially beneath its "collar."

Crevice Spiny Lizard

Wildflowers provide color at this time of year, too, and this catchfly, Silene laciniata, was one of the more intense blooms we saw as we descended from the cliff dwellings.

Cardinal Catchfly flower

We decided to spend the remaining daylight by exploring more of City of Rocks State Park before an evening group picnic and astronomy presentation. A Black-tailed Jackrabbit put in an appearance at dusk, and then we were treated to a "super moon" rising above the, um, mountains in the distance.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

After dark, other creatures venture out. The park visitor center and restrooms are modestly lit, enough to draw insects, and spiders and other predators like this Red-spotted Toad.

Red-spotted Toad

An Apache Recluse spider, Loxosceles apachea, and a large blister beetle in pinstripes, Epicauta costata, were among the other highlights of the evening.

Apache Recluse spider
Blister beetle, Epicauta costata

Our drive out of the park would have been spectacular were it not for a terribly unfortunate outcome to our encounter with a gorgeous Prairie Rattlesnake. It was stretched across our lane, soaking in the warmth of the asphalt. I got out to take pictures, and eventually move the snake to safety. Before I could do that, another vehicle approached from behind us. I had my insect net, and tried to wave the approaching car around us. Instead, the driver and his passengers assumed we might be in trouble, and they came to a stop in front of our car, after driving right over the poor serpent.

Miraculously, there was no external damage to the reptile, but it had to have sustained catastrophic internal injuries. I got the snake into my net and moved it off the road, hopefully to live out whatever remaining hours it had in peace.

It turned out the party in the other car were college students with intense interest in herpetology and entomology. We exchanged pleasant greetings (after my initial outburst because I thought they had intentionally hit the snake), and then parted ways.

It was a sad ending to an otherwise wonderful day, but more was yet to come.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

New Mexico Dragonfly Blitz - Day 2

I was immediately intrigued by the idea of an "ode blitz" whereby participants try and find as many species of damselflies and dragonflies as possible in a given area in a given period of time. When I saw the name Kathy Biggs attached to the New Mexico event, I was sold. What surprised me is how many other people showed up. The final attendance was nearly forty naturalists and photographers, none of whom could be reasonably called "amateurs" if you ask me.

"Herparazzi" hovering over Greater Short-horned Lizard

Friday, August 28, we all convened at La Tienda del Sol, a gas station/restaurant in San Lorenzo, on highway 35 just north of its intersection with highway 152. We couldn't even get out of the parking lot before we were all compelled to photograph a cute little Greater Short-horned Lizard. Such is the nature of true naturalists, and we wouldn't trade our susceptibility to distraction for anything.

Greater Short-horned Lizard

It is quite literally a long and winding road to get to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Highway 35 goes up and down and side to side at the same time over most of its length. This is a very scenic drive, with overlooks here and there.

Gila National Forest overlook on Hwy. 35

Upon reaching the entrance to the monument, we were summoned to view a very large specimen of the Crevice Spiny Lizard, a common species here, clinging to a sheer cliff wall rising from the edge of the parking lot. Glancing at a tree even closer to us, Heidi exclaimed that there was a dragonfly perched in it. Several photos and opinions later, it was determined to be a male Persephone's Darner, Aeshna persephone, a "lifer" species for most of us.

Persephone's Darner

Our destination for the day was not the cliff dwellings, but the West Fork of the Gila River. We had to wade the shallow watercourse, but it was well worth getting wet. Given the high air temperature, it was actually quite refreshing to have one's feet in the cool water.

West Fork of the Gila River

It did not take long to find plenty of dragons and damsels, either. Canyon Rubyspot damselflies, Hetaerina vulnerata, were abundant on overhanging twigs and reeds. A warm spring, branching off the main river, fostered much emergent vegetation through which other damselflies wove in and out in flight.

Male Mexican Forktail damselfly

Mexican Forktails, Ischnura demorsa, were common, but among them were Painted Damsels, Hesperagrion heterodoxum, the males of which were simply spectacular.

Male Painted Damselfly

A larger ode cruised up the narrow spring, and it was determined to be a real surprise: a male Cardinal Meadowhawk, Sympetrum illotum. This is one I tend to think of as more typical of *northern* climates, but yet here it was.

Cardinal Meadowhawk

Back out in the main channel were the river dragons: clubtails, family Gomphidae. All of them were species new to me, and surprisingly easy to get close to with my camera.

Arizona Snaketail

The Arizona Snaketail, Ophiogomphus arizonicus, was pretty easy to identify by its almost solid-green thorax. My favorite was the Serpent Ringtail, Erpetogomphus lampropeltis, with a turquoise thorax.

Serpent Ringtail

Both species like to perch on objects in the middle of the river, or vegetation hanging way out over the river.

Storm clouds gathering

As storm clouds encroached, we made our way back to the parking lot. We'd built up quite an appetite, so lunch was a welcome break. Afterwards we went down the road a little and tried to find a few more species downstream from where we had been earlier. The overcast skies were not helpful, but we did find a male Red Rock Skimmer, Paltothemis lineatipes, perched on the shore. Another member of our party also spied a Western Tiger Beetle, Cicindela oregona.

Male Red Rock Skimmer dragonfly
Western Tiger Beetle

We went our separate ways in the late afternoon, but a few of us stopped at another spot closer to the town of Mimbres, where there is a valve regulating water flow, with a seep running down a cliff face. Public access was not allowed there, but we still spied a Red-spotted Purple butterfly, the entrance to a paper wasp nest, and a couple other insects.

Red-spotted Purple butterfly

Later that evening, we connected with our good friends Dave and Shelley Small, visiting from Massachusetts. They were staying in a lovely rental home in Pinos Altos. There, our attention turned to moths and other nocturnal insects that were attracted to the lights Dave had set up. The most conspicuous creatures were tree crickets, males singing from seemingly everywhere. It was a wonderful, relaxing end to the day.

Tree Cricket male

We were just getting started, though. Next up, the Middle Fork of the Gila River. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

New Mexico Dragonfly Blitz - Day 1

Since it is "Throwback Thursday," it seems an appropriate day to begin recalling a wonderful adventure from earlier this fall. Heidi and I decided to participate in a "dragonfly blitz" in southwest New Mexico, from August 27-30, based at City of Rocks State Park between Deming and Silver City. Our first day, the twenty-seventh, was spent driving from Colorado Springs to the park and then on to our bed and breakfast in Silver City.

Bronzed Cutworm Moth from El Morro Rest Area

Rest stops along the interstate are often a good place to find insects, birds, and other wildlife. Our first such stop on I-25 was at the El Morro Rest Area north of Trinidad, Colorado (milepost 17.72). The building is something of a big flight-intercept trap for various insects that blunder inside. Outside, orb weaver spiders string their snares from under the eaves.

Cat-faced Orbweaver from El Morro Rest Area

I also found two swallowtail butterfly chrysalids anchored to the walls. Common Grackles patrolled the parking area for snack scraps.

Mating walkingsticks, Diapheromera velii, at Walking Sands Rest Area

After crossing into New Mexico, we decided to have lunch at a favorite stop called Walking Sands Rest Area, about fifteen miles north of Socorro, New Mexico. It is aptly-named given the shifting dune habitat, most of which is part of the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. Mormon Tea and other odd plants abound, providing cover for lizards, grasshoppers, mantids, walkingsticks, jumping spiders, and other interesting creatures.

Mating blister beetles, Pyrota bilineata, at Walking Sands Rest Area

There are restrooms, vending machines, and three-sided picnic shelters on a raised platform. This comes in handy if the wind is the least bit gusty, but the effect is also rather creepy because you can't see other people from the picnic shelters until they are right in front of you. Maybe I have just seen the movie Duel too many times....

Cooper's Hawk at City of Rocks State Park

Eventually we reached City of Rocks State Park, which resembles exactly that: a seemingly random deposit of large rock formations and boulders in the middle of the Chihuahua Desert. We were immediately greeted by birds, including a Rock Wren and a covey of Gambel's Quail. A Cooper's Hawk also flew through one of the campgrounds.

Gambel's Quail at City of Rocks State Park

Despite being late in the afternoon, early in the evening, there were still insects visiting flowers, especially Sleepy Orange butterflies. We finally crossed paths with our hosts, Tony and Shela, and learned what to expect the next day. Several parties were camping in the park, others lodging in various (relatively) nearby locations.

Sleepy Orange butterfly at City of Rocks State Park

Heidi and I then drove to our bed and breakfast, the Gallery 400 Inn & Art Gallery. I have to hand it to Heidi for picking yet another great little place to hang our hats.

Male rhinoceros beetle

After settling in, we went to dinner in downtown Silver City. We saw our first dragonfly of the trip, startling a large darner (family Aeshnidae) from its roost inside a storefront alcove. After sunset, enormous rhinoceros beetles, Xyloryctes thestalus began flying around. Naturally, I had to take an after-dinner stroll to see what else might be prowling. I was not disappointed.


I had barely turned the corner around the block from our b & b when I came upon a bizarre creature investigating a hole in a wall where the wall met the sidewalk. It was a vinegaroon! I had never seen a "wild" Mastigoproctus giganteus until right then. At my approach it dove into the hole in the wall, but either could not get its entire body inside or decided the cavity would not provide a viable refuge. A little delicate prodding and it backed out. I ushered it into a yogurt cup and took it back to the inn for photo ops.

It turned out that the vast majority of rhinoceros beetles were to be found along "The Big Ditch," a riparian corridor subject to periodic flooding. The "ditch" was once Silver City's main street, but is now a linear park.

Female rhinoceros beetle

A brightly-lit service station across from downtown yielded a little camel spider (Eremobates sp.), which I also took back for better pictures. I later returned all creatures to the outdoors.

Solifuge (aka "camel spider")

I was pleasantly surprised by this first day of our trip, and it proved to be a good omen of things to come. Stay tuned, I will share more in the coming weeks.