Nature is ridiculous. No matter how much time you spend outside in Chautauqua County, there will be things that surprise you. When you learn more, things just get weird ... sometimes very weird.
I have been an avid hiker and outdoors person all my life. Like many people, I started out interested in the big things. I can remember camping as a kid and going out to look at deer, raccoons, hawks, and chipmunks. All of these things are relatively large. Now, I have moved on to the miniature world. Things in the miniature world are, frankly, strange. There are odd tiny orchids that only bloom every few years, tiny blue fungus that turn whole logs blue and odd little stories all along the way.
I found one of those stories the other day while on a speed walk at lunch. While zooming around a pond, a white mark on a tree looked out of place. Looking at it closer, it was a pile of white froth on some strings. Neat! I snapped a photo or 10 and took off up the trail. White froth on a tree? What does that? I found a book that identified the froth as the eggs of the white marked tussock moth, which lays 300 or so eggs on its cocoon and covers it with a foamy substance. The eggs should hatch next spring. Interesting! Why would eggs be laid on the cocoon? A short, frenzied search through some of my other books showed a photo of the moth laying eggs ... except she looks more like a white slug or a cruelly treated moth that someone has torn the wings off of. Females of this moth are born wingless and with no workable mouth parts. They come out of the cocoon and release a powerful pheromone that is basically a bug perfume. The males sense that with their antenna, fly over and mate with the wingless female. She lays eggs on the cocoon, covers them with foam and dies, hardly leaving that spot. The eggs spend the winter on the side of the tree. Odd, right? It gets even weirder. Why aren't the caterpillars always on the same tree if the females can't fly? The female caterpillars would spend their whole life there, right? Wrong! The tiny caterpillars hatch, send out a thread that catches in the wind and blow on the wind to a new tree. These caterpillars are not fussy eaters like some are. They will eat leafy trees, needly trees and even hard bushes. Odds are that they will find something to eat wherever they land. They may go through two or three generations in a summer, spreading caterpillars through most of a forest. Ridiculous!
The white marked tussock moth lays 300 or so eggs on its cocoon and then covers it with a foamy substance.
Photo by Jeff Tome
That's one of the awesome things about nature. If you get curious about one tiny thing that is outside, it can lead to whole long stories that you would never have imagined possible. Looking into an ''off-looking'' white spot can lead to discoveries about the way nature works that would have been beyond imagining just minutes before.
So the next time you are wandering around outside, take some time to wonder at the little things. Sometimes they are even cooler than watching the big things.
The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy presently has its 2011-12 membership drive under way and is seeking donations to conserve the Wells Bay Lakeshore. To support these efforts or for more information on CWC's healthy landscaping for healthy waters efforts, visit our website at chautauquawatershed.org or call 664-2166.
Jeff Tome is a senior naturalist for programs and exhibits for the Jamestown Audubon Society and a longtime CWC volunteer and supporter.