In and out of season

The coordinators of the Maryland Biodiversity Project posted a challenge this week: Document “the most interesting” specimens of Maryland’s plants, invertebrates, and herps (reptiles and amphibians) appearing in December. For invertebrates and herps, this would mean simply showing up, given that December temperatures generally drop well below a level tolerable for these creatures. For plants, it would mean blooming, a stage that is usually synched with pollinator activity. In any case, it is a search challenge that highlights species showing behavior out of their normal seasonal range.

I presented the “out of season” challenge to some of my youngest Jemicy students on December 5, an unusually warm and sunny day at 55 degrees. We headed out to the garden and woods, almost immediately discovering several flowers in bloom, including a violet and a dandelion.

We noticed that the dandelion was nearly level with the ground, rather than standing tall on its stem as we usually find them in the spring. The violet was similarly well protected, peeking out of leaf litter on the sunny side of a building.

In the woods, kids headed for the stream, sure that they could locate a frog or salamander in a sunny spot. No amphibian showed itself, but a beetle larva wriggled through the rocks, and some tiny winged stoneflies floating on the surface looked as though they might have landed in the water by accident.

Up by the garden, we combed through the herb bed and discovered strawberries still attempting to grow fruit, while a hoverfly sunned itself on the edge of a bucket.

Several other types of insects and spiders had positioned themselves on a vertical wall to catch the sunlight. As the kids searched and pointed out creatures that I could barely see, I took pictures and wondered what they would mean.

Some were unsurprising: the Asian lady beetles, brown stink bugs, and boxelder bugs often persist all winter in protected, south-facing locations, squeezed tightly into cracks and crannies. Have these other invertebrates always been here in December, and we just haven’t taken the time to look for them?

Later, I submitted the photos of our finds to Bugguide for identification. The resulting information revealed several first-time records.  The tiny, brightly-patterned hopper known as a sharpshooter was a first for the Jemicy checklist, as were the hoverfly, the stilt bug, the harvestman, and the moth.

The moth was a green cloverworm moth, Hypena scabra,  a common late-summer and fall species. Checking the data page, I discovered that it had been recorded in December as far north as Maine, but only one other time in Maryland – at my house, in 2014. At least three of these species found during our search at Jemicy now held the first December records on Bugguide.

The kids were delighted that their bug-hunting had resulted in new data being added to Maryland’s biodiversity tally. These discoveries held the added significance of shifting what we know of certain animals’ seasonal behavior into new territory. The December column for most Maryland invertebrate species is currently nearly empty – what you might expect for a month with an average high/low of 45/27 degrees F. What will that column look like as the global climate continues to change and warm? Collecting evidence and building a robust database of species presence is one of the best ways to understand how these changes are affecting the seasonal patterns of all living things.

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