Sunday, October 21, 2007

Autumn Beckons Under Summer Temps

Giving up any immediate hope for seasonal temperatures , we ventured out this weekend, enjoying the cool mornings and then peeling off the layers to adjust to afternoons in the mid 80's. Nevertheless, organisms have detected decreasing photoperiods and have begun to move. On Saturday morning, we were treated to a large kettle of 250+ Turkey Vultures. Despite our attempts to find Black Vultures and raptors in the mix, we settled for the fact that this was a pretty amazing buzzard brigade.

On Sunday, we treated ourselves to a drive along Glade Top Trail. Native Smoke Trees with their brilliant reds and yellows brought the hillsides to life. Dogwoods were beginning to show color with touches of maroons. Sassafras trees lined the roads with their orangish-yellow hues. Peak colors, I suspect, are still a week away.

The glades of our region are nothing like the famous Everglades. Our "open spaces in the forest" provide a fascinating and purely southern Missouri ecosystem that results when southern slopes of the White River watershed become baked by their intense exposure to the sun and, therefore, become unable to support the trees of the surrounding oak-hickory deciduous forest. This creates a semi-arid community; home to pricky pear cacti, smoke trees, and other low growing grasses and xerophytes. As a result, there are numerous animal species found no where else in the state.

Although the Greater Roadrunners of the area either managed to stay off-road today or escaped my glances, another sluggish, reclusive species did make an appearance. The Missouri Tarantula is truly a classic Missouri glade endemic. This large, nocturnal, hairy arachnid illicits fear among many, but is a docile and benevolent creature. Although all spiders produce venom, the Missouri Tarantula is only capable of a bite equivalent to a small bee sting. But far more importantly, when handled gently, this species of spider chooses not to bite.

In my thirty years of science teaching in southern Missouri, I have taught countless students how to handle tarantulas and then freely allowed them to let the gentle giants crawl across their hands and wrists. I have never seen one move into its striking poise, let alone bite a human. The species does, however, engage in fearsome behavior when capturing a cricket or a grasshopper. Tarantulas must first raise their fangs in order to bite, so it is obvious when it is ready to strike. Its otherwise sluggish nature transforms to quick and agile with prey in sight.

Missouri Tarantulas are nocturnal and so secretive that they are rarely seen, except in late summer and autumn. Because of some strange shift in their circadian rhythm, they venture out of their secure hideaways, and diurnally roam through open glades, occasionally crossing roads. They are truly remarkable. You can learn more about them at MDC's spider website.

Ah, fall temperatures may arrive around here tomorrow. Couldn't come at a better time, as these Ozark hills are ready to burst into flaming color that will knock your socks off!

1 comment:

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