Nestled at the edge of 130 acres of oak woodlands, wetlands and prairies, the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center offers a unique blend of rustic nature and contemporary comforts. The LEED-certified building features beautiful views and an open floor plan with rental and programming space. Live animal displays, including state-endangered Blanding’s turtles, offer vistiors up close interaction with reptiles native to Illinois. Nature programs for all ages, birthday parties and special events provide guests with many educational and social opportunities to connect to our local environment. Visit this premiere environmental discovery center in the Fox Valley today!
Photo Caption: Like a lacy glove that’s been cast aside, the shed skin of a tiger salamander floats in a dish of water. Note the keratinized tips of the toes, which aid in digging and gripping.
March 17, 2017
If you’ve ever visited Hickory Knolls, you probably noticed that we have a lot of snakes. Snakes in the lobby, snakes in the exhibit room, snakes in the classroom. If we had a plane, we’d probably have snakes there too, albeit without Samuel L. Jackson and Julianna Margulies along for the ride.
All our squiggly friends are captive-bred donations, and as such portray an important part of our education mission, which is to remind people that wild things need to stay in the wild; conversely, pet animals need to remain as pets, and not be released or “given their freedom.”
Yet, education mission aside, the fact remains that we’ve got a building full of snakes. Such a backdrop usually prompts visitors to ask lots of snake-related questions. No. 1 among them has been, and likely always will be, “Are they poisonous?”
The answer to that query is twofold. The first part is, “No,” and the second part weaves in a little explanation on the difference between poisonous and venomous. (Short answer: Poisons are either ingested, inhales or touched, while venoms are injected. Picture poison ivy and poison dart frogs, vs. bee stings, spider bites and snake bites.)
The No. 2 question usually addresses the topic of snakes shedding their skin. How often, how long does it take, do they eat their sheds? The respective answers are, “It depends on their age and growth rate, and whether they are trying to heal a wound;” “about a half hour;” and “no.”
The people asking the questions typically are happy with our answers and take away some newfound knowledge. But every once in a while, we like to ramp up our interpretive message with an extra statement along the lines of, “You know, snakes aren’t the only animals that shed their skins…”
From there we might launch into a discussion of exoskeletons, and how virtually everything with a hard outer shell – critters like insects, spiders and crayfish, to name a few – shed their skins, or cuticle layers, too. A molt from one of our tarantulas is often used to illustrate this point, and if someone wants to see more we’ve got a whole box of assorted shed “parts”—cicada shells, butterfly chrysalises, dragonfly exuviae (from the Latin for “things stripped from the body”)—that we can dip into and provide, if not hours, at least several minutes of entertainment and education.
However, every once in a while, if a visitor is really lucky, he or she might be treated to the pièce de résistance among molts…the cast skin of a tiger salamander.
I suppose I should mention that in addition to the 13 snakes that call Hickory Knolls home, we have an assortment of Ambystoma tigrinum that have come to us through various means. People are often quite curious because, although common throughout our area, tiger salamanders tend to stay underground for much of the year (they are part of a family known as the mole salamanders) and hence are rarely seen.
But what’s even more unusual than seeing a salamander is finding their cast skin. The outer epidermal layer comes off in its entirety, like a snake, but instead of being dry and scaly it is soft and very fragile.
Some amphibians actually eat their cast skins. I remember once watching a captive green frog shed its skin. When I first walked into the room, I thought something was dreadfully wrong. The frog was puffed up, like he’d just swallowed a golf ball, and he appeared to be breathing heavily and in distress.
I next noticed a translucent material about his mouth. Good heavens, I thought, what could this slimy discharge be?
As I continued watching, though, I noticed that the frog wasn’t expelling the slime, he was consuming it. Using his little froggy feet, he was methodically pushing the gooey strands into his mouth and swallowing them. Slowly—ever so slowly—the dim lightbulb in my brain began to brighten. The frog was molting and, not wanting to let good protein go to waste, was eating the cast skin.
I’ve heard that salamanders will consume their molts too but I’ve yet to observe that activity. The captive animals I’ve watched instead crawl out, like a sausage exiting its casing, and leave the semitransparent skin behind.
Our salamanders don’t seem to be interested in their sheds, but we certainly are. In fact, we added one to our collection just the other day. We certainly wouldn’t want to let a perfectly good molt go to waste.Amphibians, Good Natured
Photo Caption: Woodpecker species in our area have begun drumming, an annual sign that their breeding season has begun. The loud, staccato pounding is used to declare territory; it is distinctly different from the softer pecking sounds the birds create when excavating a nest cavity or foraging for food. Photo credit: Robert Burton, US Fish & Wildlife Service
Signs of Spring
March 10, 2017
How good are you at reading signs? Admittedly, some are easier to pick up on than others. Big red stop signs, for example, are pretty unmistakable (for most people, anyway.) Flashing neon can be hard to miss, too.
But other signs are more subtle, even though they’re all around. And right now, we’re surrounded by a bunch; they’re nature’s undeniable signs of spring. Here, in handy checklist form, are 10 of our naturalist department favorites:
- Woodpeckers, both male and female, are drumming. Listen for the rapid-fire rat-a-tat of our local species as they pound on hollow trees (and gutters) to declare territories.
- Daylight is lasting longer. Hard to believe, but we’ve added more than 100 minutes to our day length since the winter solstice back in December. Plus, we’re less than two weeks away from the spring equinox, March 20, when day and night will equal each other at 12 hours apiece.
- Canada geese are pairing off. They still prefer the safety of the flock at night, but these ever-present members of our suburban landscape have started “dating” during the day. Look for pairs feeding just ever-so-slightly away from each other in areas where that longer-lasting sun has melted the snow off the grass.
- Love is in the air. Have you smelled it? Thiols, the “active ingredient” in skunk spray, have permeated most of our neighborhoods at one time or another this season as Mephitis mephitis (Latin for Stinky stinky) goes about its courtship and mating rituals.
- Skunks aren’t the only mammals in reproductive mode. Squirrels, raccoons, opossums, foxes, coyotes…all have nearly completed their breeding activities and will soon be prepping nests and dens for the arrival of offspring.
- Male redwing blackbirds have returned. Competition is stiff among these marsh denizens, which happen to be polygynous (one male, many females) and the early birds definitely claim the better territories. They’ll defend them fiercely throughout the breeding season. (Remember this come June, when the news will no doubt include reports of redwing “attacks” on unsuspecting folks strolling too close to a well-hidden nest. Want to ward off a strike? Stare down the little stinker. RWBBs won’t fly towards eyes.)
- Spiders! Next time the sun is out, find a patch of ground where the snow has melted and leaf litter is plentiful. Bet you’ll find spiders there, tiny little guys stalking even tinier insect prey.
- Male American goldfinches are brightening. Throughout the winter months, these guys have flitted about in drab olive-yellow. But with spring just around the corner, their plumages are beginning to change. Soon they’ll be bright yellow, just as their nickname “wild canary” implies..
- Maple buds are swelling. Live near a silver maple? Those giant blobs on the ends of the branches are this year’s leaves, coiled up in buds awaiting the first rush of sap. A few more warm days and cool nights and things should really start popping.
- Skunk cabbage is up. Our earliest blooming wildflower, Symplocarpus foetidus, has popped up in wetlands throughout the TriCities. Chemical reactions allow this plant to generate temperatures 15 to 35 degrees warmer than the surrounding air. In years where we actually have snow, this reaction would help melt any flakes covering the plant. But it also serves another purpose, helping skunk cabbage spread its stinky (or fetid, as referenced in the Latin name) aroma and attract the carrion-feeding insects it requires for pollination.
I suppose I could go on and on, for more signs of spring are just around the corner. Early breeding frogs and salamanders already have made their way to breeding ponds. And soon comma, question mark and morning cloak butterflies will emerge from diapause, the insect version of hibernation.
But now my phone is ringing. And that’s a sign that it’s time to stop with this talk about signs…at least for now.Birds, Good Natured, Seasons