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A Short Safari In A Small Oak Tree

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Our destination tree in Weaver Park, Urbana, with baby stroller for scale.

Imagine a safari in your neighborhood. Instead of a few days hauling luggage through international airports, though, picture a leisurely five minute stroll from the front door.

Local nature holds fantastic mini wildlife. For those willing to trade global for local, and large for small, there is plenty to see. I am speaking of ant lions instead of lions, of course, and spiders instead of spider monkeys, but the biology of little animals is just as complex. They are smaller, sure, but their diminutive stature is more than fairly compensated by their vast diversity. Our planet simply holds more of the under 1-inch set. A lot more. Dung beetles alone outnumber the global count of mammal species, and there are more weevils than all birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians combined.

My nine-month-old daughter and I undertook a modest micro safari this weekend. We visited a small oak in a local park, pictured above. Over the course of an hour we found a great number of subjects just among the branches of a single young tree. Below is a gallery of animals that remained still enough to photograph during our hunt.

First are animals that feed directly on the tree.

Our oak tree provides food for polyphemus moth caterpillars. Although small now, this animal will grow into one of North America's most spectacular giant silkworm moths.

A close-up shot of the same hatched and unhatched polyphemus eggs. The young caterpillars eat the eggshell after emerging, leaving the characteristic bite marks.

This animal may look like a bump on a twig, but it is actually a sap-feeding scale insect.

A jumping plant louse (Psyllidae) feeds along the midvein of a leaf.

A froghopper nymph- or “spittlebug”- sips plant juices from inside the safety of a foam coating.

From afar, a lace bug (Tingidae) looks like a speck of dirt. This species, too, feeds from plant sap.

A side view of the same insect.

Next, the sap-feeding insects attract ants to the tree.

Sap-feeding insects excrete excess sugar as honeydew, which ants collect along the lower leaves. This is a field ant, Formica pallidefulva.

The ants inevitably attract ant predators.

A tree full of insects can support a number of predators. This Tutelina jumping spider prefers to eat ants.

Meanwhile, other predators in our tree hunt for prey.

A predatory mite hunts other mites along a twig.

A small pseudoscorpion sits motionless in a crevice.

A Philodromus sp. running crab spider has caught a leafhopper. The spider was remarkably difficult to see in the field, as it was well camouflaged in its perch.

This Anyphaena sp. ghost spider has rolled up a leaf edge and bound it with silk to provide a retreat.

The most important tactic to a mini-safari is to be attentive. Small specks under magnification turn out to be alive, and some animals are so well camouflaged as to be invisible until they move.

A shiny brown speck along a leaf vein turned out to be a small beetle.

Looking closely at parts of the tree that appear barren often reveals small animals with exceptional camouflage. This tortricid moth does its best to look like bark.

All this from a single tree. We’re thinking next of looking under a rock, but I might need to clear my memory card first.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. altonphill 6:17 pm 06/3/2014

    hy

    Link to this
  2. 2. jctyler 3:35 am 06/4/2014

    That’s one fascinating and instructive article about a short safari in a small oak tree that I see a direct use for when wondering how to interest grand-children in nature and science. Well done.

    Link to this

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