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Calligrapha verrucosa “Warty Willow Leaf Beetle” Chrysomelidae

Missoula, MT
May 26, 2016
Robert Niese

The genus name “Calligrapha” is a reference to the beautiful calligraphic script on the backs of many species. This species’s coloration is not quite as script-like, but it definitely still appears painted. These beetles are most common in the Northern Rockies of Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, but, according to some older sources, their range is far broader, stretching from Nebraska to California to Alaska. If you have photographs of these beetles please contact me to supplement our scientific understanding of their distribution!

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Ranatra fusca “Brown Waterscorpion” Nepidae

Lake Inez, Lolo National Forest, MT
May 23, 2017
Robert Niese

There’s something genuinely unnerving about insects viciously preying upon vertebrates, and waterscorpions are superbly specialized for this terrifying task. They sit near the surface of the water, head down, with their elongated, raptorial front limbs outstretched, waiting. Their long paired “tails” remain in contact with the water’s surface like a snorkel, allowing them to breathe while fully submerged. When some unlucky fish or tadpole swims too close, they snap them up like a mantis and immediately stab them with their sucking mouthparts. Their saliva both subdues and begins to digest their prey, allowing them to suck out the animal’s insides. On a completely unrelated note, this individual looks worse for wear, which led me to discover that adults actually overwinter in lakes and ponds here in Montana – not an easy task considering that most bodies of water freeze-over completely at some point. So apparently they’re indestructible AND hyper-specialized predators. Thank goodness they’re only five inches long.

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Hydrophyllum tenuipes “Pacific Waterleaf” Hydrophyllaceae/Boraginaceae

Olympic National Park, WA
June 5, 2013
Robert Niese

While we’re on the topic of Hydrophyllaceaous plants, here’s another from the low, wet forests of the coastal PNW. Like most members of this pseudo-family, these flowers exhibit unmistakable exerted stamens. These plants are endemic to the PNW and can be found anywhere west of the Cascades, usually near rivers or streams. It’s also interesting to note, like the other Hydrophylls I’ve been posting lately, these plants produce flowers whose color varies from cream to deep violet. A quick google image search suggests that most individuals are white, but all the images I have collected personally are purple. Perhaps I tend to only encounter the purple varieties, but it seems far more likely that I simply prefer to photograph purple plants over white ones. It’s interesting that this unconscious bias may have influenced my perhaps unfounded perception of these populations being predominantly purple.

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Phacelia heterophylla “Varileaf Scorpionweed” Hydrophyllaceae/Boraginaceae

Mt. Sentinel, Lolo National Forest, MT
June 13, 2016
Robert Niese

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not very familiar with members of the genus Phacelia, but this species perfectly exemplifies why they have received the common name, “scorpionweeds.” Those tightly coiled flower heads will progressively unravel until they’re long and straight (a very Boraginaceaous growth pattern). P. heterophylla is an abundant, weedy species in our area, and, unlike elsewhere in its range where their flowers are drab and white, here in Missoula ours tend to be deep lavender in color!

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Phacelia linearis “Thread-leaf Phacelia” Hydrophyllaceae/Boraginaceae

Mt. Sentinel, Lolo National Forest, MT
June 13, 2016
Robert Niese

I can’t say I’m particularly familiar with the genus Phacelia. In fact, I was quite stumped when I first photographed this flower on the trails behind the university. Turns out, Phacelia has perplexed botanists as well over the last few decades as well. Most members of this genus are called scorpionweeds (for obvious reasons which I’ll elucidate in my next post), but this particular species is definitely not recognizable as such. Its large, broadly campanulate flowers are not what I immediately associate with members of Hydrophyllaceae either. What’s more, the family Hydrophyllaceae is now accepted as a subfamily within Boraginaceae, and this plant absolutely does not remind me of forget-me-nots and bluebells. So in summary, the Thread-leaf Phacelia is an oddball in the world of Phacelias and the genus Phacelia is generally also odd as a member of Hydrophyllaceae which, oddly enough, has odd traits that do not conform to those that tend to be most common in the family Boraginaceae, to which it now belongs.

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Philodromus histrio “Theatrical Running Crab Spider” Philodromidae

Blue Mountain National Recreation Area, MT
May 16, 2016
Robert Niese

I have no idea why this species of running crab spider has been given the species epithet “histrio.” In Latin, histrio means “actor” or “player.” Perhaps the arachnid’s propensity for waving its arms about whenever a predator (or camera) approaches earned it this descriptor. Or perhaps some early entomologist first encountered it engaged in an impressive act of twig-impersonation. In fact, when I first stumbled upon this individual, its legs were perfectly aligned in the shape of an X and pressed flat against the underside of this Artemisia stem, perhaps hoping to be mistaken for plant matter. Regardless, these Philodromids are widespread, common, and relatively recognizable. Look for them in northern latitudes and in the Rockies anywhere you might find weedy Asteraceous plants like Artemisia, Tanacetum, Centaurea, or Senicio (yes, I know, that encompasses just about every habitat).

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Callospermophilus lateralis “Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel” Sciuridae

Blackfoot River Recreation Corridor (BLM), MT
June 8, 2016
Robert Niese

Look at this adorable little fatling! Golden Mantled Ground Squirrels are a common, endearingly pudgy species found throughout western North America east of the cascades and Sierras. They, along with dozens of other ground squirrel species (41, to be precise), were part of the Great Ground Squirrel Generic Revision of 2009. In this taxonomic revision, mammalogists at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History determined that the mega-genus Spermophilus was likely a paraphyletic clade of 8 separate genera. Callospermophilus was one of those genera that rose from the ashes of the Spermophilus mega-genus. Today it remains a distinct genus with only three species, all of which are restricted to western North America. Here in the PNW, one of these species, C. saturatus, is endemic to the Cascade range where it likely became isolated by the Columbia River, allowing it to differentiate from its eastern sister species, C. lateralis.

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American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) Pelecanidae

Yellowstone River, Saugus, MT
13 May 1975
prep. Larry DePute; photo. Robert Niese

Unlike their brown counterparts, the American White Pelican is an overland migrant, spending its winters in the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico before flying thousands of miles to breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States. To facilitate this epic travel, these birds have an 8-10 foot wing span, the second-largest of any bird in North America. Now that we have fully articulated this massive specimen, we’re not entirely sure what to do with it… He can hardly fit through doorways!

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Philadelphus lewisii “Lewis’ Mock Orange” Hydrangeaceae

Missoula, MT
June 11, 2015
Robert Niese

This species of Philadelphus was discovered by Meriwether Lewis in 1806. It’s flowers and scent are reminiscent of orange blossoms, thus it’s common name, the mock-orange. Unlike oranges, these attractive shrubs produce dry, 4-parted capsule fruits that are wholly inedible. Their leaves, however, contain saponins and can be crushed to make a mild soap. They are a popular ornamental plant here in the eastern PNW and are the state flower of Idaho. Look for them scattered throughout drier slopes in the west, where they tend to grow singly or in small populations. Here in Missoula, they cover the hillsides with gorgeous white blooms at the beginning of summer, much like Amelanchier in the spring.

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Trachemys scripta elegans “Red-eared Pond Slider” Emydidae

Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, WA
May 9, 2016
Robert Niese

Red-eared Sliders are a distinct subspecies of Pond Slider popular in the pet industry. Originally native to the southern US, these animals have been introduced to nearly every state including Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam. As such, they are on the IUCN’s list of the 100 most invasive species in the world. They have not yet been reported in Montana, Alaska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, or North Dakota. If you see a Red-eared Slider in one of these states, contact your state’s Fish and Wildlife department immediately. Here in the PNW, these turtles out-compete native Western Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta bellii) and the threatened Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata).