Natural History

The Lyre Snake – just mildly venomous

The Lyre snake is named for a V-shaped marking on the back of the head. This marking is often more prominent on females. Dark brown saddles occur on a light brown to light gray back. The underside is creamy-white or yellow with scattered brown spots. At first glance the Lyre snake may look like the common king snake. But, the Lyre snake’s neck is narrow, making the head appear more triangular, similar to other venomous snakes. Also, the eyes have pupils that are vertical slits rather than round as are on non-venomous snakes. Lyre snakes can get up to four feet long.

The Lyre snake (Trimorphodon lambda) is usually a nocturnal hunter, but can be found basking in the sun in the spring and fall. The main prey are lizards and mice, but the snake also goes after other prey including birds (It does climb trees).

The range of this snake includes most of Southern Arizona, and extends to southern Nevada and Utah, as well as northern Mexico. It favors the lower rocky canyons and arroyos of hills and mountains from sea level to 7400 feet (2300 m). A rock dweller, it wedges itself in the many crevices and fissures that are abundant in rocky areas. This snake is an occasional resident of flat lands, according to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

According to the Tucson Herpetological Society:

Lyre snakes are not usually dangerous to humans. “When threatened, the Sonoran Lyresnake will often rattle its tail. It will sometimes raise the anterior portion of the body, and strike and bite if further provoked.” The Lyre snake does not have fangs. Rather, “Toxins produced in a Duvernoy’s gland are delivered to prey and attackers via elongated, grooved teeth in the rear of the upper jaw. A large individual is capable of delivering a venomous bite to a person. Symptoms range from none to local redness, itching, swelling, and numbness, particularly if the snake is allowed to chew.”

 

For more photos and a very detailed description, see an article from the Tucson Herpetological Society: https://tucsonherpsociety.org/amphibians-reptiles/snakes/sonoran-lyresnake/ .

More snake articles:

Arizona Coral Snakes – pretty and very venomous

The Coachwhip a colorful snake

Gopher snakes

Kingsnakes versus Rattlesnakes

Mexican vine snakes

Rattlesnakes

Speckled Rattlesnakes

 

The Panicled Aster aka Day of the Dead Flower

The Panicled Aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) is called the “Day of the Dead Flower” because of its use to decorate graves in an early November Mexican ceremony (Dia De Los Muertos) which honors those who have passed. This aster is one of several flowers used in these ceremonies. Other names include: panicle aster, tall white aster, eastern line aster, lance-leaf aster, narrow-leaf Michaelmas daisy, and white-panicle aster. Marigolds are also often used.

The flowers with white petals and a yellow center occur from Canada, throughout the U.S. and into Mexico. October is their peak season for blooming. (See more images here.)

The perennial flowers grow in clumps up to five feet tall and wide (sometimes larger). The petals turn more lavender-colored as the season progresses. The green leaves are up to six inches long. The green stems, which turn brown with age, are often grooved and have lines of hairs.

The nectar and pollen attract many kinds of bees, wasps, and butterflies as well as many other insects. Birds and mice feed on the seeds. Herbivores, including deer, rabbits, groundhogs, horses, cattle, and sheep, browse on the foliage.

The Zuni people used this plant for wounds and nosebleed. A salve of the dried plant was applied to skin abrasions. The smoke from burning dried flowers treated nosebleed.

Tea made from the blossoms produces a calming effect much like chamomile. The Iroquois used it to treat fever.

I took the photo at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum where the flowers are growing between the butterfly garden and the hummingbird aviary. ASDM says these flowers do well in a watered garden, part shade or full sun, or in a large patio container. They are frost tolerant and can be pruned in the spring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chuparosa – the Hummingbird Bush

Chuparosa, Justicia californica, (aka Beloperone) is a perennial plant native to Southeastern California and the Sonoran Desert including Arizona and Sonora and Baja California, Mexico. It is a favorite of hummingbirds which go after the nectar. Other birds go after the sugar-rich center of the flower and seeds. The fruit are elongated, club-shaped capsules about one-half inch long which contain four seeds in the inflated tip.

 

Chuparosa is a shrub that can grow three- to five feet high and six- to eight feet wide. It is usually found in dry washes and on rocky slopes below elevations of 2,500 feet. The shrub is usually grayish green with hairy branches. Plants initially have succulent oval leaves, up to one inch long, that give way to bright red (and sometimes orange or yellow) flowers. The flowers, up to two inches long, are tubular and grow in clusters at the end of stems. The flowers have a large “lower lip” that opens to reveal a white anther which contains the pollen. According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM), Chuparosa flowers can be found any month of the year, except during drought or right after freezes. Big blooms often occur in the winter and early spring months.

According to DesertUSA, “This member of the large, tropical Acanthus family (Acanthaceae) is the only New World genus that extends north into the US. The common name chuparosa, “sucking rose” in Spanish, is abundant with nectar, making it popular among various birds, especially hummingbirds. Quail and house finches eat the seeds. Known locally as honeysuckle, chuparosa is said to have been eaten by the Papago Indians.” Chuparosa is browsed by livestock and deer.

Chuparosas are very drought tolerant and often cultivated as a landscape ornamental in desert regions for its bright flowers and to attract birds. ASDM has a plant care guide for chuparosa here and notes that they can survive quick dips in temperature to 22°F.

See more photos here.

Globe Chamomile, an invasive species in Arizona

Globe Chamomile (Oncosiphon piluliferum) is a pretty, but prolifically invasive, species. It is currently expanding its range in the Phoenix area. It is a native of South Africa. It was first recorded as an invasive near Los Angeles and San Diego.

According to the Arizona Native Plant Society:

“Globe Chamomile sprouts and grows vegetatively from late November until the end of January. It begins to flower in early January and quickly begins seed setting by early February. The seeds are very light and easily transported by wind and vehicle traffic. In years of sufficient winter moisture, Globe Chamomile can go through up to three generations between November and the end of April, resulting in a prodigious production of plants and seeds in a short period of time. Globe Chamomile readily infests sunny, disturbed soils that are not shaded by vegetation. It readily takes root in bare areas bordering any vegetation, both residential and wild land.” (See more photos) Individual plants can get up to two feet tall.

Globe Chamomile is related to the more commonly known species of chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) an important, daisy-like medicinal herb native to southern and eastern Europe.

Some claimed medicinal uses for Globe Chamomile: a gynecological aid, an antidiarrheal, a cold remedy, and to treat heart problems. Europeans administered an infusion of the plant for convulsions and the Hottentots used an infusion of the flower and leaf for typhoid and other fevers including malaria. It has also been used as food.

The other name for this plant is Stinknet because of its strong, unpleasant odor. Handling the plant may cause skin irritation or allergic reaction. Pollen may cause allergic reaction.

Read about edible and medicinal plants of the Sonoran Desert:

https://wryheat.wordpress.com/edible-desert-plants/

Chuckwallas – another desert lizard

Several species of chuckwallas occur in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. The most plentiful are the Common chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater) and the Western chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater obesus). Adults males get up to 16 inches long. The Isla San Esteban chuckwalla (Sauromalus varius), also called the piebald chuckwalla, inhabits several islands in the Gulf of California. This species can get up to 24 inches long. A population of Isla San Esteban chuckwallas also occurs at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) as part of a research and education project.

All chuckwallas are large, heavy-bodied lizards with folds of skin along the neck, shoulders and sometimes along the sides. The head of males tends to be black with lighter colors along the body. Females are generally lighter-colored shades of gray. Color varies with species, sex, and age.

Chuckwallas are found in rocky areas within desert scrub and woodlands. They use the rocks for basking, shelter, and protection from predators. For protection, a chuckwalla will seek a rock crevasse and wedge itself in by inflating its body with air. The top photo shows this behavior.

Males will fight over territory and females. Dominance for both males and females is often based on size. Males will warn rivals with “push-ups”, bobbing the head, and mouth gaping. These lizards are not harmful to humans. In fact, the Seri Indians and other Native American peoples collected and raised the lizards for food.

Chuckwallas are mainly herbivores that eat a variety of vegetation including fruit, leaves, buds, and flowers of many plants. They also eat insects.

Chuckwallas breed from April through August. Females lay eggs in clutches of five to 16. The eggs are incubated for 33 to 50 days. Juveniles (and females) are usually banded. The lizards reach sexual maturity in two to three years.

Chuckwalla predators include hawks, American kestrels, coyotes, Mohave rattlesnakes, and humans.

 

 

See more photos of three species from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum digital library here.

More articles on lizards:

Clever Horned Lizard

Metachromatic spiny lizards

Spinytail Iguanas

Venomous Lizards

Devil’s Trumpet, another pretty but poisonous plant

Devil’s Trumpet, (Datura fastuosa), also called Datura metel is native to India and southeast Asia, but now grows all over the world in warm climates. It is in the Nightshade family. I took the photo for this article near the butterfly garden at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Other common names for this plant include: Horn of Plenty, Downy Thorn-Apple, Hoary Thorn-Apple, Purple Thorn-Apple, and Thorn-Apple. See more photos here.

The plant can be both an annual and perennial and can grow three to 12 feet high. The flowers, which are up to eight inches long, come in a variety of colors including white, yellow, cream, red, and violet.

According to Wikipedia:

All parts of Datura plants contain dangerous levels of highly poisonous tropane alkaloids and may be fatal if ingested by humans or other animals, including livestock and pets.

Datura metel may be toxic if ingested in a tiny quantity, symptomatically expressed as flushed skin, headaches, hallucinations, and possibly convulsions or even a coma. The principal toxic elements are tropane alkaloids. Ingesting even a single leaf can lead to severe side effects.

The plant is cultivated as an ornamental and for its medicinal characteristics. It is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine.

An article in the Journal of Pharmacology goes into great detail about the medical uses of this plant. In summary, “The dried leaves, flowers and roots were used as narcotic, antispasmodic, antitussive, bronchodilator, anti-asthmatic and as hallucinogenic. The plant was also used in diarrhea, skin diseases, epilepsy, hysteria, rheumatic pains, hemorrhoids, painful menstruation, skin ulcers, wounds and burns. In Ayurveda [an ancient medical treatise summarizing the Hindu art of healing and prolonging life], the plant was considered bitter, acrid, astringent, germicide, anodyne, antiseptic, antiphlogistic, narcotic and sedative.”

An article at Entheology.com goes into detail about traditional uses of this plant, most of which involve inebriation.

 

Related article:

Sacred Datura – pretty, poisonous, and hallucinogenic

 

Guayule, a desert rubber plant

Guayule ((Parthenium argentatum) is a small woody, flowering shrub native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Latex can be produced from the bark of this plant. Unlike rubber produced from tropical plants, the latex in guayule is hypoallergenic, i.e., it does not contain certain proteins found in tropical plants that cause latex allergies. (See photos here)

According to Purdue University:

Guayule has been known as a source of rubber since the pre-Columbian times when Indians of Mexico used it to form balls for their games. There were several efforts beginning in 1900 to commercially produce rubber from guayule. A major effort occurred during World War II.

Guayule is adapted to hot desert environments, and sites with well-drained calcareous soils and relatively low concentrations of nutrients. Sandy-loam soil is most suitable since root diseases, which are exacerbated by standing water, are one of the few problems encountered in guayule cultivation. (Source)

The University of Arizona, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been studying guayule for about 15 years. That research included growing the plant at several sites in Arizona.

According to the UofA:

Guayule is a renewable, low-water use industrial crop. Products from guayule are made using non-polluting, water-based processes that require no toxic chemicals. Guayule-based products are also biodegradable, high-performing substitutes for many synthetic, petroleum-based products that are often expensive to dispose of and hazardous to the environment.

The Yulex Corporation has the exclusive license to a patented process to produce latex and products from Guayule. One patent covers a novel method for extracting and manufacturing Guayule natural rubber latex. The second patent covers rubber products made from such novel methods.

Extracting latex from Guayule involves homogenizing the entire hedged Guayule plant. Rubber is found primarily in the bark and must be released in the processing. Branches are ground into a kind of “Guayule milkshake” by gently breaking open the cells in the plant, releasing intact rubber particles and creating an aqueous suspension which is placed in a centrifuge for separation. Since the Guayule rubber particles are lighter than the aqueous solution, they are separated from the suspension. The rubber portion of the mixture is culled off the top (much the same way that cream is skimmed off milk) and purified into latex. (Source)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Guayule may also prove to be an economical, environmentally friendly source of yet another prized commodity: energy. That energy can be made from the ground-up stems and branches, called “bagasse,” that are left after their latex has been removed. Guayule bagasse would provide 8,000 to 9,000 Btu per pound, about the same as charcoal. (Source)

Guayule is being considered as a new commercial crop in Arizona (along with agave and hemp) because it uses less water than traditional crops.

 

Don’t Touch Buckmoth Caterpillars

Buckmoths (genus Hemileuca, several species) are found across southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and south through Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico. Habitat varies from mesquite bosques to grasslands and plains, depending on the species. They feed on the leaves of palo verdes, mesquites, and other desert trees. The spines of the caterpillars can release a very painful toxin, so don’t touch them.

The following material is from a publication of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum which was derived from: Tread Lightly: Venomous and Poisonous Animals of the Southwest, by Rich and Margie Wagner. Rio Nuevo Publishers, Tucson, AZ. 2005. Reprinted with permission of ASDM.

Physical Characteristics

A number of caterpillars have developed an effective form of chemical defense that utilizes “stinging spines” on their bodies to ward off would-be predators. The most common of these are the buckmoth caterpillars, of which about 23 species are found in the Southwest. The full-grown caterpillars are about 2 inches long (5 cm) and are covered from one end to the other with bristles or urticating spines. The colors are variable and depend on the species. The fast-flying adult moths have a wingspan of about 2-3 inches (5-7.5 cm), and vary in color from relatively nondescript tan and brown to brilliantly colored yellow and orange on black. They are primarily day-fliers, and they do not have stinging spines. (Urticating: cause a stinging pain or sensation)

Behavior

Juno Buckmoth (Hemileuca juno) caterpillars feed on the leaves of common desert trees, often in groups. When molested, the caterpillar usually stops feeding and remains motionless, counting on camouflage and the urticating spines for protection. Caterpillars occasionally drop off branches and land on people, or are brushed against by riders on horseback, resulting in envenomation by the urticating spines. Other buckmoth caterpillars, like those of the range caterpillar moth (Hemileuca oliviae), feed on grasses, and envenomations can inadvertently occur when a person is walking through the grass.

Reproduction

The life cycle of moths is somewhat complex, and the particular details are species-specific. Flights generally occur from September through December. The mating of most Hemileuca moths, such as the Juno or mesquite buckmoth, begins shortly after sunset on fall evenings. Males use their well-developed antennae to track and follow the pheromone trail given off by female moths. After mating, the female deposits eggs on branches in host trees, with the eggs usually laid in circles around small branches. The eggs over-winter and hatch in April or May into small larvae, or caterpillars, that eat and grow for about a month, molting through five instars before they migrate to the ground and form a pupa, or cocoon, in leaf litter. After metamorphosis, most of the cocoons will hatch into adults (in the fall again), although some Hemileuca cocoons have been known to lie dormant for four years.

Effects of venom

The spines of stinging caterpillars contain toxins that are produced in gland cells. Caterpillars do not have a stinging apparatus per se, but rather depend on intentional or inadvertent contact of the spines with the skin of a victim. After the spines penetrate the skin, they break off, releasing toxins that cause mild to severe pain and other compounds that induce an inflammatory dermatitis called erucism. Because the protein components of the toxins are considered “foreign” to the body, an allergic reaction may also occur. While hospitalization is rarely required for stings on the skin, spines that enter the eyes may cause potentially serious complications.

First Aid and Medical Treatment

Anyone attempting to remove a stinging caterpillar should be careful not to incur additional stings on the hands or elsewhere, particularly as the caterpillar drops off. Wash the area immediately with soap and water. Spines that remain in the skin can often be removed with adhesive tape. Baking soda applied as a paste with water may help decrease the pain, as may ice applied to the injured area. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be taken for pain. Benadryl® may help treat localized allergic reactions. As always, victims with severe allergic reactions should seek immediate medical attention, as should anyone with persistent symptoms or signs of infection.

The moths, themselves, are harmless.

Buckmoth caterpillars are especially abundant in New Orleans and tend to fall out of oak trees onto unwary people. (See video about “the attack of the buckmoth caterpillars”) There are several other stinging caterpillars; see this from the Florida Poison Information Center.

See also:

THE MOST DANGEROUS VENOMOUS ANIMALS OF THE SOUTHWEST

Gila Topminnow rediscovered in Santa Cruz River north of Tucson

The Gila Topminnow was once ubiquitous within the Gila River drainage, but its population declined due to introduction of non-native species, water impoundment and diversion, water pollution, groundwater pumping, stream channelization, and habitat modification. It was listed as an endangered species in March of 1967. This guppy-like, live-bearing fish is 1-2 inches long. Breeding males are jet black with yellow fins. Gila topminnow are omnivorous, and eat food such as detritus and crustaceans; but feed mostly on aquatic insect larvae, especially mosquitos.

According to a press release by the US Fish&Wildlife Service (FWS) et al., During a November survey, Gila Topminnows were rediscovered within the Santa Cruz River north of Tucson just downstream of the water treatment plants after a 70-year absence. Topminnows were also found in the Santa Cruz River just north of the sewer treatment plant in Nogales, Arizona, in December 2015.

 

Here is the lede from the press release:

After an absence of more than 70 years, the endangered Gila topminnow has reappeared in the Santa Cruz River in northwest Tucson, fish surveys conducted in November confirm.

Scientists were hopeful native fish would return to the river near Tucson after the river’s water quality significantly improved following upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities releasing effluent (highly treated wastewater) into the river at Agua Nueva and Tres Rios treatment plants in 2013. The native Arizona species, listed under the Endangered Species Act, was rediscovered in the Santa Cruz River near Nogales, Arizona in 2015. Both sections of the river where the fish reappeared depend on releases of effluent, demonstrating the critical role this water plays for the river’s health.

More from the press release: “Finding Gila Topminnow in the Santa Cruz River in Tucson is the most significant conservation discovery since the species was listed as endangered in 1967,” said Doug Duncan, fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We are not certain how the fish made it to the Tucson reach of the river, but we will analyze the genetics of the fish and river flow data to see if we can make that determination.”

How did the fish get into the Santa Cruz River? In my opinion, captive-bred fish were put into the river or they escaped from nearby mosquito-control projects. It is also possible that the heavy rains we had in July washed some into the current location.

From a May 26, 2017 FWS press release:

Pima will have a new ally in the battle against mosquito-borne diseases this summer: endangered Gila topminnow.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) provided 500 of the native fish, which will be introduced into standing waters in urban county areas. The project is being done under the Department’s federal permits and an Endangered Species Act Habitat Conservation Plan between Pima County and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The three agencies are cooperatively spearheading this effort to reduce threats to public health in the county. The project is part of an overall plan by Pima County Health Department, Pima County Sustainability and Conservation, the Phoenix Zoo and Arizona State University to use the federally endangered fish to target mosquito larvae and reduce the threat of mosquito-borne diseases, such as the West Nile and Zika viruses. This approach is also being considered for future deployment in Pinal County and hopefully other county governments around the state.

Also from FWS: “The species is currently being reared at over 100 locations for reestablishment into numerous sites in Arizona. The Gila topminnow has been released at almost 200 locations in efforts to reestablish populations.”

Genetics of Mexican wolves – assessment of possible hybridization with other canids

A new study, commissioned by the Pima Natural Resource Conservation District*, examined the genetics of Mexican wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) and assessed the possibility of hybridization with dogs of Native American origin and or/coyotes. You can read the entire study here.

The basic finding from this research and other research cited within the report are that all North American wolves are hybrids with coyotes, and a few are hybrids with dogs. The current captive-bred population of Mexican wolves shows no hybridization with coyotes or dogs, but some previous research did detect some Mexican wolf-coyote hybrids.

Here are some highlights from the report:

The study concluded “living Mexican wolves are not derived from hybridization with Native American dogs. The results also did not indicate recent hybridization between Mexican wolves and coyotes. However, one wolf-dog hybrid was detected in wolves from Idaho. Our study used captive-reared Mexican wolves, therefor future analyses of wild-born wolves and dogs living in the same areas are needed to determine if hybridization is occurring in the wild population of Mexican wolves in Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona.”

The report notes that other studies have found wolf-dog hybrids in northern wolves .

“A second hybridization concern involves wolves and coyotes. Wolves and coyotes share a recent common ancestor during the Pleistocene (Ice Ages) in North America and their subsequent occupation of the same ranges may result in some level of hybridization. Indeed, evidence of historic and recent hybridization comes from mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences, y-chromosome, SNPs and whole genome sequences (WGS).”

“… land use changes following European colonization of North America have favored the spread of coyotes while wolf populations have declined, resulting in substantial levels of hybridization between these two species in some areas (e.g. Eastern North America). This same process also resulted in hybridization with domestic dogs, contributing to three species hybrids in some populations…”

“..all North American wolves …have significant amounts of coyote ancestry. In addition, we detect a strong geographic cline in the proportion of coyote ancestry across North American canids: Alaskan and Yellowstone wolves have 8 to 8.5% coyote ancestry, Great Lakes wolves have 21.7 to 23.9% coyote ancestry, Algonquin wolves have at least 32.5 to 35.5% coyote ancestry, and Quebec sequences have more than 50% coyote ancestry. [A] Mexican wolf… had a coyote ancestry of approximately 11%. The significance of these results, as well as those of previous authors, is that wolf-coyote hybridization occurs naturally, and the process can be accelerated in human-dominated landscapes that favor coyotes.”

“The captive Mexican wolf samples were divergent from other wolves as well as coyotes and dogs of European, East Asian, and North American descent.”

“Additionally, the remnant Mexican wolf population was subject to, and has the genetic signal of, one of the most severe, recent genetic bottlenecks in conservation history. It was founded from just seven remaining individuals separated into three lineages, subsequently inbred in captivity, and then lineages cross-bred to attempt a genetic rescue.”

We see from this study that the science is not settled. There are still several outstanding questions regarding Mexican wolves in the wild.

Question for readers: Should an animal group that is variously hybridized with other animals qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act?

*About the Pima Natural Resource Conservation District (link)

The Pima NRCD is a State-authorized local unit of government that has been given a broad mandate to provide for the restoration and conservation of lands and soil resources, the preservation of water rights and the control and prevention of soil erosion, and thereby to conserve natural resources, conserve wildlife, protect the tax base, protect public lands and protect and restore this state’s rivers and streams and associated riparian habitats, including fish and wildlife resources that are dependent on those habitats, and in such manner to protect and promote the public health, safety and general welfare of the people.

Arizona’s 42 Conservation Districts cover the entire state of Arizona, and parts of New Mexico and Utah on the Navajo Nation. Arizona’s Conservation Districts are in a unique position to lead local conservation partnership efforts that achieve landscape level results across all land ownerships in Arizona. They have authority to enter into agreements with private landowners, state and federal agencies, tribes, and others to implement a local conservation program in their District. The Conservation District model has proven itself over the last 75 years to be the most effective approach to achieving sound management of Arizona’s natural resources.

Pima NRCD believes private lands provide the tax base that supports most county and state services. Additionally, private lands are the underlying lands for historic federal and state grazing leases, as these lands are the basis for economic productivity.

Disclosure: I am a board member of Pima NRCD.

 

See also:

Wolf attacks on humans in North America

Are Mexican wolves in Arizona actually wolf-dog hybrids?