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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on the coast of Lake Michigan, in Michigan.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on the shores of Lake Michigan is home to endangered piping plovers and threatened Pitcher's thistles.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

September 2014


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Labor Day honors our nation's working people. For many, it also marks the end of summer vacation season and the start of the school year. In the natural world it is also a time of change. For birds, bats and monarch butterflies it's migration time. From late summer to early fall, both northern long-eared and Indiana bats move from their summer areas and gather in ‘swarms’ near their hibernacula.
In fall, bats congregate in and near caves and mines where they hibernate and begin a swarming period. During this time, bats fly in and out of their cave or mine throughout the night. Mating occurs during swarming period; however, females store the sperm during hibernation and do not become pregnant until spring.
The northern long-eared bat and Indiana bat are in the same genus called “Myotis,” which means mouse-eared. Bats in this genus typically have small ears. Not surprisingly, the northern long-eared is distinguished from other Myotis by its long ears, which, when laid flat, extend past the nose of the bat.
Decreasing day length and temperatures, along with aging milkweed and nectar sources trigger a change in monarch butterflies; this change signifies the beginning of the migratory generation. Unlike summer generations that live for 2 to 6 weeks as adults, adults in the migratory generation can live for up to nine months.
Most monarch butterflies that emerge after about mid-August in the eastern U.S. do not reproduce and begin migrating south in search of overwintering grounds. From across the eastern U.S. and southern Canada, monarchs funnel toward Mexico.
Monarch butterflies in the U.S., west of the Rocky Mountains, migrate to the Pacific coastline of California to overwinter. They gather to roost in groves of eucalyptus, Monterey cypress and Monterey pine.
During spring and fall migrations, Great Lakes piping plovers may fly over 1,000 miles each way between Great Lakes beaches and coastal areas of southern states, such as Georgia and Florida, where they spend the winter. Piping plovers prefer wintering habitat near ocean inlets that have roosting cover close to tidal flats where they feed on invertebrates.
Northern monkshood (Aconitum noveboracense), a federally threatened plant, is named for its distinctive, blue hood-shaped flowers. The flowers are about 1 inch long and their shape is adapted for pollination by bumble bees.
Northern monkshood requires very specific habitat of cool, moist talus slopes or shaded cliff faces in wooded ravines. In Ohio there are only three populations of this plant. In Iowa it is often found with other rare and declining species that also live in habitats that provide cool, moist conditions during summer.
Salt run-off from local highways is a soil contaminant source for northern monkshood at one Ohio site. Efforts have been made to redirect runoff away from these plants and the population has been improving in recent years.
At 2 to 3 inches long, the federally threatened Neosho madtom is one of the smallest catfish known; and it has a correspondingly short life span of only 2 to 3 years. These madtoms reside within the Neosho and Spring Rivers of Kansas and Missouri. They rely on clean substrates to hide during the day while searching for food at night.
Neosho madtoms make cavity nests in protected hiding places. After they lay their eggs, one or both parents may guard them. Some madtoms also guard their newly hatched young.
Endangered Hungerford’s crawling water beetles live in only 11 rivers: 8 in Michigan and 3 in Ontario, Canada. True to their name, they crawl around the rocks at the bottom of moderate- to fast-flowing streams. Even though small, less than 1/5 inch, this beetle can swim through swift currents to surface periodically for air.
Hungerford’s crawling water beetles prefer areas of streams with gravel and cobble beds and also areas with sandy bottoms and beds of algae. Water temperature is important, too. Like Goldilocks, Hungerford’s prefers water not too warm and not too cold, but just right (relatively cool)!
Not discovered until 1952, Hungerford’s crawling water beetle remains mysterious. Like all beetles, it undergoes complete metamorphosis; eggs hatch into larvae, which pupate to become adults. Scientists have yet to find its pupal stage. Adult beetles eat a variety of aquatic algae, but larvae seem to feed on just one kind, called Dichotomosiphon.
To create Topeka shiner habitat in Iowa, the Fish and Wildlife Service helps landowners restore oxbow ponds. Topeka shiners are tiny minnows that prefer quiet, open pools of small prairie streams; habitat found in oxbows. When Iowa was prairie, naturally meandering streams created oxbows. With stream straightening and channelization for improved drainage, few oxbows remain.
Oxbow ponds are restored by digging out sediment that has filled in the pond, taking the depth back down to the original streambed. This allows the pond to hold water year round. The Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Iowa DNR and The Nature Conservancy have restored 40 oxbows in Iowa, providing habitat for Topeka shiners, other fish, reptiles, amphibians and birds.
Iowa’s prairie pothole region suffered drought in 2012 and 2013 , then the winter of 2013-14 saw one of the coldest and driest winters on record. Many fish kills were reported and biologists feared that restored oxbow ponds had also been affected. Post-winter surveys showed that, although numbers were down, some Topeka shiners survived.
The Hine’s emerald dragonfly spends 4 to 5 years as aquatic larvae, so the larvae must survive late summer dry periods and winter cold. They do so by seeking refuge in the burrows of their enemy, the devil crayfish, which will eat any Hine’s larvae it can catch.
Devil crayfish are primary burrowers, meaning that they live most of their lives in a burrow, rather than using it as short-term shelter. Their burrows can be a meter long at the side of a stream or pond with a cone-shaped mud chimney. The chimney-topped hole leads to an underwater chamber and a second horizontal tunnel leads into the stream.
Crayfish burrows give shelter to many other animals, including imperiled species like the Hine’s emerald dragonfly (endangered), copperbelly water snake (threatened), eastern massasauga (candidate for ESA protection), Kirtland’s snake (species of concern) and the crawfish frog.
The only place in the world that Pitcher’s thistle grows is along the shores of the Great Lakes http://bit.ly/1mRsl8n. This threatened plant, also known as dune thistle, grows in a variety of sand dune habitats but does very well in complex dune systems, which have some of the largest and tallest dunes in the Great Lakes.
Pitcher’s thistle thrives in areas of bare sand where few other plants can survive. They do best where dunes shift naturally, constantly creating bare sand areas. Once dunes stabilize, other plants take over and out-compete Pitcher’s thistle. Plants that are the first to grow in newly disturbed areas, like the Pitcher’s thistle, are called “pioneer species.”
A Pitcher’s thistle exists in a small juvenile form for up to eight years. In its final season, the plant sends up a flowering stem that can grow 3 feet high. Pitcher’s thistle flowers are a cream or pinkish color. After blooming just once, the plant sets seed and then dies.
Two of the world’s largest populations of Pitcher’s thistle grow within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Ludington State Park - Manistee National Forest. Both places are also home to another imperiled coastal species, endangered Great Lakes piping plovers.
Polar bears, a threatened species, are the world’s largest land carnivore. Found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia, the worldwide population is estimated at 22,000-25,000 bears. Check out this video to get a look at the Arctic from a polar bear’s perspective.
This Saturday, September 27, is National Museum Day. Honoring this day in the spirit of Smithsonian Museums, which always offer free admission, Smithsonian magazine hosts Museum Day Live! Participating museums offer free admission to anyone presenting a Museum Day Live! ticket. Go here to check out participating museums.
Historically, the pink mucket mussel lived throughout larger river systems in the Midwest. Big impoundments and degraded water quality have extirpated it from most of this range. Recent progress has been made to artificially propagate, culture and tag this mussel in hopes of restoring populations to historical levels.
Freshwater mussels, like endangered pink muckets, enjoy a very sedentary lifestyle, filtering water at the bottom of streams and rivers. However, they can travel long distances when young, by hitchhiking. At the beginning of their life cycle they catch a ride on fish as microscopic parasites, which enables them to disperse into new habitats.
The pink mucket and many other freshwater mussels have elaborate lures to attract host fish to pregnant females, improving their larvae's chances of contacting a suitable host. Females display and actively move their mantle lures to attract a host fish. When a fish strikes the lure, glochidia are released and attach to the fish. Ohio State University has video of mussels and their lures.
Last updated: August 31, 2014