Natural collaboration on trails: Lonestar hiking trail, North Country Hiking Trail, Manistee River trail

DSC05678I want to love the Lone Star Hiking Trail, but I haven’t hiked much of it. The Texas challenge is finding good hiking weather not in hunting season. Now I have nothing against killing those overpopulated deer, but I don’t like to hike through combat zones. By the time it gets cool, hunting season is hard upon us. Still, there is an allure to the shady creeks and big thicket forests of this trail so close to Houston. Now they’ve closed sections of the trail, why or for how long I do not know.

DSC05675DSC05746Instead, last weekend I hiked another great trail, the loop formed by a small piece of the North Country Hiking Trail and the Manistee River Trail, in Michigan an hour past Cadillac. This site gives a cool view of the elevation changes along the loop. The North Country Trail has greater climbs and drops, clearly.

Besides walking and chatting with my sister and her husband (they planned the whole trip), I was looking for interactions to photograph, parasitic and cooperative. I’ll show some of those rather than give the usual trail narrative of ups and downs, best places to camp or where a bear was seen the night before.DSC05637  DSC05652

At the beginning I discovered this group of caterpillars feasting on milkweed. I wanted a photo because milkweed is toxic, so the caterpillars acquire the toxins themselves, becoming distasteful. If a bird tries one, it might die, but its sisters will live, so this moth, the milkweed tussock caterpillar, Euchaetes egle, lays its eggs in groups on the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca.

The same meadow had pollinators galore, sucking down the sugar at season’s end, like this half-black bumble bee, Bombus vagans, on clover. OK, it could be that it is Bombus perplexus. Sydney Cameron, world famous bumble bee expert helped me out on this one, noting it isn’t always possible to give a firm identification from a photo. I have to say that of the bees, bumble bees and stingless bees are my favorites. Since stingless bees are tropical, here in St. Louis I most love bumble bees. I need to work harder at learning them and studying them, with helpful sites like this free one.

DSC05642That August meadow had another kind of interaction visible, that of the goldenrod gall fly Eurosta solidaginis, and its goldenrod host. Whole communities can form in these galls, forced on the plant by the chemical manipulations of the fly. I myself once collaborated with a Eurosta specialist, but on cold tolerance in wasps.

Sometimes we only see signs of interactions long past as in this dead tree, still upright. DSC05671Probably it was a pileated woodpecker that probed deep inside the living trunk to pull out and eat delicious insect larvae. But here are the tracks of another interaction. Had this tree been downed and polished when strong, its would would be considered spalted. The spalting is the lines between fungal territories, marked black by death. you can just see the lines between the woodpecker holes. I have a lovely bowl of spalted wood, and a chunk cut from a Danish forest to remind me of our time with Koos Boomsma at University of Copenhagen.

I suppose this piece wouldn’t be complete without a little human collaboration. Besides our natural family team of cooperation, I got help from a stranger. About 4 miles into the hike, my 10 year old boots fell apart. The toe began to separate and the heel flopped free on one boot. This was not good when we had nearly 20 miles to go. I had forgotten duct tape, but the first set of young fishermen I came across helped me out. I used most of a tiny roll of duct tape, and then accepted their offer to take the rest with me. Saved! I should have had the tape myself, but if you have everything you need on a backpacking trip, then you are carrying too much!DSC05687

I’ll end this rather contemplative piece, with much more biology than I usually share, with two images. The first is what I saw from the tent, treetops. Some ask if it isn’t a joy to get home from camping so you can bathe and sleep in a comfortable bed. But nothing is more comfortable than my tent snuggled in my sleeping bag, on a pad, the cold air on my cheek.DSC05789

This last image shows an interaction in a subtle way. It is the browse line on the trees, demarcated by the hungry jaws of white-tailed deer.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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