Toothed fungus emerging from a dead tree in late winter. I really enjoy a tiny fungus that’s just getting started because you can see the small details that are lost in photographs of larger specimens. For this one, it’s all about those yellow-tipped teeth and the translucent, waxy margins. It was growing on a log with hundreds of small, dried brackets so perhaps it’s Steccherinum ochraceum just getting started. But the margins are waxy, not fluffy, so Basidioradulum radula (Schizoporaceae) and Mycoacia fuscoatra (Meruliaceae) might be better ID. Finally, Radulomyces molaris (Pterulaceae) looks similar. And I’m sure there are dozens of other possibilities— there are several million species of fungi.
The above illustrates the flip side of photographing cute, immature fungi … they are hard to ID, especially if you don’t know much about fungi. I’ll have to go back in a few weeks to see what it looks like after some warmer weather. Without spores to examine for shape and size it might be hard to decide, so I really need to invest in a microscope. If you have an opinion on the ID, please leave a comment — I’d be grateful for any tips, even if it’s just a recommendation on a guide book for a newbie.
In trying to learn more about these species, I was struck by how ignored crust fungi are by mycologists and how they are left out of most field guides. The only interesting thing I could find was an article by Dimitrios Floudas lamenting this obscurity:
“The feeling of collecting these fungi is rewarding, but the frequent lack of people to share this excitement is discouraging.”
Wise words for many taxa, I think.
Here’s a nice guide if you find yourself with an unidentified crust. You never know when that’s going to happen.
Here are four anterior close-ups Pyractomena borealis. The telescoping head allows the larva to inject (via curved, hollow mandibles) a numbing agent into snails that have retreated inside their shells. The antennae and maxillae are also partially retractable. When a larva is done feeding on a snail (or slug or earthworm) it will de-slime all of these parts with the hooked, fingerlike projections of the holdfast organ (pygopod) located on the last abdominal segment. The head is also fully retractible (see previous post). These larvae are extremely active, so really hard to photograph.
Pyractomena borealis (Lampyridae) exploring the surface of trees on a warm winter day in February. The third photograph shows how they can retract their head under the carapace like a turtle. At first I thought they might be foraging — they are highly predaceous, and hunt slugs and earthworms (in packs!) by first injecting them with paralytics. But they might have just been looking for a place to pupate, because it’s time for that. Adults will emerge sometime in early Spring to be the first fireflies in the area. The larvae are bioluminescent, too. The hypothesis about why the larvae glow is that it evolved first as an aposematic trait in larvae, warning mice and toads of the presence of lucibufagins, steroidal toxins in the hemolymph. It’s thought that the adult habit of using flashes is secondarily evolved, millions of years after the larvae evolved the ability to glow. The ability of larvae to glow even predates the origin of the Lampyridae, I gather. For more enlightening details, see Branham and Wezel (2003), Stanger-Hall et al. (2007), and Martin et al. 2017.
Some photographs of Armillaria (honey mushroom) underneath the bark of a dead tree. The rhizomorphs look like plant roots but they are filled with hyphae, which sometimes emerge in a more classical mycelial fan. If you find these in your backyard, look for bioluminescence on a cloudy, moonless night. Just give your eyes about 20 minutes to acclimate.
Even though “garter snake” has been the common name for Thamnophis sirtalis for over 200 years, I discovered this week that people who know a lot about garter snakes don’t agree on why. There are two theories: (1) the snakes were named after stocking garters and (2) sirtalis is the Latin word for stocking garters and thus the common name was derived from the Latin binomial. I know, not a burning question for most, but I was curious given that snake fans seem to choose one or the other without further mentioning why. So I looked into it.
(1) Most articles, books, and websites explaining the common name suggest it’s because the snakes resemble garters, pieces of fabric that were fastened right below one’s knee (the garet, in Celtic) to keep stockings from falling down (that used to be a huge problem). The resemblance is lost on most people today, especially guys who don’t know their lingerie history, because garters are now frilly and made of silk or satin and thus not at all snake-like. But back in early Europe they often had lines and patterns that could easily remind somebody of the stripes and scales of a snake. And everyone wore them: women, men, even kings, so they were ubiquitous, visible, and probably conversation starters. So it’s not surprising that somebody eventually referred to a particular type of snake as a “garter” snake.
In etymology it’s important to establish when a particular word first appears, so I consulted the Online Etymology Dictionary and learned that garter snake first shows up in 1775, in the United States. The Online Etymology Dictionary says the name is related to stocking garter but doesn’t provide proof of this or any links. Curious, I found that “garter snake” shows up even earlier, in 1773, in a description of specimens in somebody’s collection in Lichfield, England. Again, there is no explanation of why the common name was garter. I’m sure the first usage of “garter snake” goes back even further, too, if you had access to a good database of letters and newspaper articles from the time. I don’t.
(2) A potentially related hypothesis for the common name is that sirtalismeans “like a garter”. This is exactly the claim thousands scientists and naturalists make. If true, then the common name might have been launched when Linnaeus published his classification in 1758. Alternatively, maybe it just confirms that he knew of the common name and simply applied the Latin cognate for the species. But I was suspicious of this claim because when Latin was a living language there weren’t stockings or the need for garters. Sure enough, when you look up sirtalis in a Latin dictionary, it’s not there. Like many of words Linnaeus used in his binomials, he made it up by combining Latin and Greek roots, leaving us to guess at what the new word might mean. Kraig Adler theorizes that the word might be a combination of siro (Greek for cord, rope, or string) and talis (Latin for such, the like), and thus might mean “ropelike”. So when people claim that sirtalis means “like a garter”, they are incorrect. The first appearance of the “like a garter” claim seems to in 1976, in Robert Parker Hodge’s Amphibians and reptiles in Alaska, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories. I don’t own the book so I’m not sure if he cites somebody, in turn.
Although sirtalis does not mean “like a garter”, I guess it’s possible that Linnaeus had garters in mind when he concocted a rope-like species name for the snake. He probably wore garters, and perhaps called these snakes “garter snakes” before he officially named them. The question, then, is whether the common name predates his scientific name. In looking into this I discovered a second common name that I think was borrowed from German or Dutch: kouse band. The French use serpent jarretier (jarretier means garter), and Swedes use strumpebandssnok. Anyway, it seems that everyone in 1790s Europe, regardless of language, called them snakes-that-look-like-garters. Would be nice to know which language first started to call them by the respective name, but to do that I think I’d need something other than Google’s English-based book search. Note that the 1773 date I mentioned above was found with Google, and thus is probably simply related to my usage of the English-language version. There are likely other databases out there without such language problems.
A deservedly rare explanation for how the garter snake got its name is that it is a misspelling of guarder snake, garden snake, gardener snake, or garten snake. Some of these variants are quite common on the internet, and I think most people can blame their parents.