Unlikely BFFs: Spotted Salamanders and Green Algae

Posted on June 14, 2024

If you ask us, spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) are pretty darn cool all on their own. 

For one thing, they have different respiratory systems at different stages in life: larvae hatch underwater and are born with external gills while juveniles and adults live on land and have lungs. For another thing, their bright yellow spots come in unique patterns that can be used to identify and track individuals, helping researchers understand more about their populations. And, most endearing of all, they always look like they’re smiling!


As if all of that wasn’t awesome enough, one of their most fascinating features is their ability to do something that vertebrates aren’t known to do: photosynthesize.

Now, before you start burning 4th grade science books, hang on a minute! Spotted salamanders need help to get energy through photosynthesis. Their partner in science-related crime? A type of green algae called “Oophila amblystomatis,” which literally means “loves salamander eggs.”

Spotted salamanders and this green algae, commonly called “salamander algae,” have a unique, symbiotic relationship. The salamander algae consume the nitrogen-rich waste that the embryos produce and turn it into oxygen and sugar that the embryos can then use. But wait, it gets cooler! 

A Revolutionary Discovery
For over a century, it was thought that the algae only lived in the salamander jelly surrounding the eggs, but scientists later discovered that the algae also live inside the embryos' cells, marking the first example of a photosynthetic organism living inside a vertebrate's cells (a process previously only observed in invertebrates like coral). 

This is exciting because vertebrates’ immune systems typically destroy foreign material, but not in this case. Studies have even shown that spotted salamander embryos that contain the salamander algae hatch more quickly than those without the algae, suggesting that the algae benefit embryonic development. Cool, right?!

While this relationship is only known to be specific to spotted salamanders for now, who knows what future research will show. Some scientists think it's reasonable to assume that other species of salamanders might also be supercharged by similar relationships!

Just when you think you've got a handle on things, nature responds with mind-blowing new information. We've accepted that we'll never know it all...but we promise to bring you along for the ride as we sort out little bits and pieces!

The Bugs That Love Bubble Baths

Posted on May 24, 2024

Have you ever been wandering one of our restored prairies or working in your garden and noticed a glob of what looks like froth or spit clinging to the stem of a plant? While easy to overlook, these little dollops of foam actually serve a greater purpose…and house a short-term resident!

Inside this mass of froth is the aptly named spittlebug, or the nymph version of a froghopper. Froghoppers belong to the family Cercopidae and are relatives of aphids and cicadas. The foam surrounding the young spittlebug serves a dual purpose: it keeps the nymph moist and its bitter taste shields it from predators, like birds, wasps, and spiders. So, what’s the spittlebug doing in there? And how does it produce all that foam? Keep reading! The answer is kind of gross!

What’s going on in there?
Inside the foam, the spittlebug is busily chugging watery plant sap. The sap isn’t especially nutritious, so the bug consumes a lot of it and subsequently excretes a lot of urine (150-280 times its body mass daily). As the bug excretes this large quantity of urine, it emits air from its abdomen at the same time, and…well, we think you know where we’re going with this. That “spit” surrounding the bug isn’t really spit at all…it’s basically foamy urine. Maybe the bugs weren’t so aptly named after all, huh?

Do they stay in there forever?
As the spittlebug feeds and grows, it periodically molts. Upon its final molt, the spittlebug emerges as a mature adult froghopper. Froghoppers are winged insects that prefer to hop…and boy are they good at it! Froghoppers can leap up to 27 inches straight up into the air in a single bound! Like the foamy houses they form early in life, these gigantic leaps help the froghoppers evade their enemies.

Are they harmful?
Generally, spittlebugs do not cause significant plant damage unless there is a large infestation. In certain geographic areas, spittlebugs are considered vectors for plant diseases due to their ability to spread the bacteria Xylella fastidiosa, although this is not currently an issue in Michigan.

There you have it! Keep an eye out for the tell-tale foamy masses next time you're out at one of our preserves with restored prairies (Chris Thompson Memorial Preserve, Burns Prairie, or Sugarwood) or in your garden. The foamy masses can usually be found until about early to mid-summer, so now is prime time!

Northern Lights Possible Tonight!

Posted on May 10, 2024

Big news: the entirety of Michigan will be in the potential viewing area for the northern lights tonight (5/10) into tomorrow (5/11)!

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has issued a rare G4 geomagnetic storm watch due to the high likelihood that 7 coronal mass ejections (CMEs) will reach Earth and create highly elevated geomagnetic activity. While such storms can cause a host of problems with GPS and communications here on Earth, they can also cause the northern lights, AKA the aurora borealis, to become visible!

How can you see the northern lights?
First of all, if it's too cloudy...then you probably won't. But, in the event things that things clear up tonight, or if the lights persist through the weekend—

-Find an area as far away from city lights as possible with an unobstructed vantage point.
-Look north!

The viewline forecast (which shows both the likelihood of aurora, as well as the southern extent of where the aurora might be seen) is being updated frequently as the situation progresses. To keep tabs on the viewline forecast, visit this link.

How can you utilize your solar eclipse glasses while you wait?
The associated source of the expected geomagnetic storm is a large, complex sunspot cluster that is 16 times the diameter of Earth (circled in purple below). If you put on your solar eclipse glasses and look at the sun, you can see it!

Good luck out there, and if you DO happen to catch the aurora, snap a pic and send it our way!

How Do Total Solar Eclipses Affect Wildlife?

Posted on April 4, 2024

We’re willing to bet that you’ve already heard all about the upcoming total solar eclipse taking place next Monday, April 8, 2024. (If not, that’s okay! You can learn all about it here.)

Amidst all the hubbub about acquiring glasses, the path of totality, and the sheer rarity of this event, there’s another conversation going on—a conversation about animals. Will the sudden darkness and shift in temperature have any effect on unsuspecting wildlife?

Knowing that animals can’t tell time, read headlines, or check their phones, we can infer that they won’t be expecting it to get dark in the middle of the day. So, at the very least, they’re going to think it’s nighttime. But, what will they do?

Animal Behavior During Eclipses
Because of how rare total solar eclipses are, there’s not an abundance of reliable data on the topic... but there is some. One report from the year 1560 claims that birds fell from the sky (we’re not so sure about that one). The first comprehensive study on the matter was conducted in 1932 and relied on observations from 500 people. At the time of the eclipse, people reported that squirrels ran into the woods, crickets began chirping, owls started hooting, bees returned to hives, and cattle and sheep headed into barns. The same study showed that zoo animals had little or no response to the eclipse. This conflicted with the results of a more recent zoo animal study conducted during the 2017 total solar eclipse, which included reports of Galapagos tortoises moving more quickly than usual and mating, giraffes galloping, and apes emitting unusual vocalizations.

Also in 2017, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology analyzed 1,350 checklists submitted from the time of maximum eclipse and compiled a report of the most interesting observations, which included the emergence of nocturnal and crepuscular species, as well as reports of huge flocks of birds flying at unusually low altitudes or stopping to roost (maybe that’s what that observation from 1560 was referring to...).

What Can You Expect in Southwest Michigan?
Because we aren't in the path of totality and therefore won’t experience total darkness or notable temperature drops, we don’t expect any standout wildlife behavior on our preserves...but don't let us stop you from going out and observing! Email if you notice anything unusual. We're interested in hearing about it!

If you want to take it one step further, you can take an online training course and submit data to NASA's Soundscapes study, a citizen science project studying how eclipses affect life on Earth during the October 14, 2023 annular solar eclipse and the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse.

Early Butterfly Gets the Sap!

Posted on March 15, 2024

Most often associated with lush springtime or sunny summer, it can be jarring to see a butterfly in March…but it’s not unusual, depending on the species. While it’s customary to think about butterflies spending winter in a cozy chrysalis or migrating down to Mexico, did you know that some butterflies overwinter as adults right here in chilly ol’ Michigan, wings and all? Certain species emerge on warm winter or early spring days and can return to a safe spot if it gets too cold again.

Meet Some of the Year-Round Residents
The Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) is the butterfly you’re most likely to see on a warm winter day in Michigan. These butterflies overwinter in loose bark and tree cavities and can emerge temporarily on sunny winter days. To fly, they need a body temperature of about 65°F, which they can achieve by basking in the sun. Surprisingly, they’re also able to raise their body temperature in a more unique way: through shivering. Mourning Cloaks can raise their body temperature by up to 15-20 degrees within a few minutes just by shivering!

Left image: Ventral, or underside, view of Mourning Cloak. Right image: Dorsal, or top side, view of Mourning Cloak.

The Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) also overwinters as an adult and is one of the first butterflies to emerge in spring. While you’re more likely to see a Mourning Cloak on a sunny winter day, Eastern Commas are also occasionally seen flying around on late winter/early spring days. These butterflies hibernate in log piles, tree hollows, and even in man-made structures. There are two generations of Eastern Commas each year, one in the summer and one in the fall. Only butterflies from the fall brood hibernate through the winter. Eastern Commas are named for the whiteish-silver comma (or C) shaped marking on their hindwing, visible on the underside of their wings (see right image below).

Left image: Dorsal, or top side, view of Eastern Comma. Right image: Ventral, or underside, view of Eastern Comma.

What Do They Eat?
But, don’t butterflies need plants to survive? Not necessarily! Mourning Cloaks can be seen perched upside down on trees sipping sap or dining on rotten fruit. Eastern Commas also feed on sap and rotten fruit, but they also visit mud puddles, carrion, and animal droppings for sustenance. Not the most beautiful mental image, but hey—that’s nature for you!

While there are additional butterfly species that overwinter as adults, the two described above have been spotted in Southwest Michigan this March and reported on iNaturalist. So, if you see them at a preserve near you in the coming days, now you know!