Saturday, March 8, 2014

Wolf's Milk - A Bioblitz Preview

Wolf's milk - actually not a fungus or a Hostess pastry - a fact I learned while browsing iNaturalist   
The National Park Service is having a bioblitz at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the San Francisco Bay area on March 28 and 29, 2014. Sponsored by National Geographic, it's gonna be huge. They expect thousands of citizens to join over 300 scientists observing and documenting the plants and animals of Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo Counties at 12 locations of GOGA (the National Park Service's four-letter code for this park).

A bioblitz is an event where animal and plant species are identified in a specific location over a short period of time. The eyes and ears of students and citizens are led by scientists to cover as much area in the park as possible and to confirm identifications. The inventory is useful to understand the park's ecology but it is also a great way for everyone to experience the biological richness of our public lands and the techniques of scientific inventory.

The motto of the Golden Gates National Parks Conservancy, the nonprofit partner of the Golden Gates National Parks.
 80,000 acres for all forever - that's a darn powerful and inspiring message.   
I'm going with several of my co-workers as scientist-leaders and we are asking our docents and volunteers at Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District to go too. One day we want to bioblitzen our preserves, but we figured first we should learn from the queen mother of parks. It's pretty cool to be working with National Geographic too, the knee-socks grandaddy of exploration.

Four teeth scrape marks on the center of the middle California buckeye seed arranged two above and two below like the paired incisors of a rodent. There is the misimpression that California buckeye seeds are poisonous, yet if you look, you will occasionally see signs of something chewing on these large fist-sized seeds.   
The GOGA bioblitz will be using iNaturalist as the primary tool to report the sightings and congregate the data. iNaturalist is an online forum for sharing observations of plants and animals anywhere on the earth. It's easy to report sightings via your cell phone while you are in the field and include photos, and the iNaturalist website has many links to learn more about species and get identification help from the iNat community.

This buckeye from the same location on Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve shows long parallel scrape marks and you can imagine the animal grasping and turning the seed as it ate. The size and shape of the scat found around the chewed buckeyes plus the location of a nearby stick nest indicate that a dusky-footed woodrat is gnawing on these buckeye seeds.   
Of the eight National Park bioblitzes lead by National Geographic so far, the GOGA bioblitz will be the first to use iNaturalist and with online reporting, you can follow along even if you can't be there on March 28 and 29.

A hole stabbed into a buckeye seed. I'm guessing this is done by birds. I've started posting tracks, scat and other signs of animals on iNaturalist to supplement the usual mugshots of wildlife that get posted most frequently. In this way I hope to add another level of educational content to the site.   
I attended a docent training several years ago lead by Ken-Ichi Ueda, one of the original developers of iNaturalist. At the time I thought it was an interesting option for our docents to record sightings in the preserves, but not precise enough for my professional work.

Sierran treefrog eggs, another type of animal sign that has been fun to share on iNaturalist. This pond on Monte Bello Open Space Preserve was dry but started filling up after a long drought period and within a week was quickly occupied by California newts, rough-skinned newts and Sierran treefrogs. There were thousands of treefrog eggs along the edge of the new pond, many being feasted on by hungry newts after their long drought-imposed sentence underground. A pencil-size Santa Cruz gartersnake was trying to swallow a treefrog. I expect we will see many wildlife interactions in this spring bioblitz along California's ecologically rich coast.   
In preparation for the bioblitz, I loaded iNaturalist onto my smart phone and started practicing. Wow, there's a lot of new options and links. I was surprised at how much I learned about local plants and animals just by entering info and cruising the iNat site.

I wasn't sure what this fungus was, so I posted it on iNaturalist and asked for identification help. The next day, zabbey suggested it was Turkey Tail. I checked the links provided by iNaturalist to other confirmed reports and to Wikipedia and it seemed like a good match. With these crowd-source type tools, there is a risk of misidentification. However, I checked zabbey's profile on iNat and since he is the Administrator and Manager of iNaturalist's Fungi of the North American Continent project, I figured it was a reliable ID. By selecting the button to agree with this ID, the common and scientific names were added to the observation, and anyone can check the details of the report to agree or disagree.   See clarification re ID in comments below.
A case in point is the wolf's milk. While I was walking down a creek for a newt survey in Monte Bello Open Space Preserve a few weeks ago, I noticed a cluster of tiny pink globes on a fallen trunk. They were pretty and I didn't remember seeing them before.  Heck, after all these drought conditions, it was great to not only see some mushrooms but also such delicate pink ones. I took a photo and five hours later when I walked out of that creek a wee bit cold and exhausted, I forgot about the pink dots.

Just above the notebook are three parallel lines which are 3 cm apart. My hiking buddy suggested this might be a log used by a mountain lion to scratch. I will try to confirm this sign with other signs of mountain lion before posting it on iNaturalist.   
Last weekend, I was trying to refind an interesting log we spotted in the deep forest on the Dipper Ranch - a log we think a mountain lion had used as a scratching surface. I inspected many a downed tree in that forest, but couldn't find the scratching station again. On one of the logs, however, I was pleased to see the little pink globes again. Now my curiosity was up, so I decided to post a photo of the pink globes on iNaturalist and ask for help identifying it. I listed the pink globes as an unknown type of fungus, recorded the date and location with some details of the habitat, and clicked the button asking for ID help.

Wolf's milk is the aethalia or fruiting body of a plasmodial slime mold described as being a bag of cytoplasm and thousands of nuclei within a single cellular wall.   
Then I stumbled onto something called the Identitron on iNat and entered some information about the type of plant and color. At first I didn't find much that matched but as I was spinning through other iNat observations, I suddenly saw a photo of the same pink globes. When I clicked on that photo, I found out they were actually a slime mold. Slime molds are really strange creatures! And these come in pink. By the next day, one of the other iNat users had confirmed my tentative identification of the wolf's milk. I was learning and this was fun!

A California ground squirrel in Rancho San Antonio County Park and Open Space Preserve. Easily identified by the whitish fur on its shoulder and also the fact that it just popped out of the mounded hole in the ground.   
I'm continuing to practice on iNaturalist and am discovering more interesting aspects. Now I'm getting new ideas for using iNat such as to track sightings of ground squirrels in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Abundant bite-size digging prey create conditions for all kinds of other animals, so it's worthwhile knowing where ground squirrels and their fossorial buddies occur. Or how about tracking sightings of bobcats, especially if they are showing any signs of mange that might be a result of rodenticide use, and then seeing if there is any pattern with adjacent land uses.

Skull found near the slime mold log. The teeth pattern and shape of skull suggest this is a raccoon. This was confirmed by herptracker, a naturalist on iNat.  A few days later while working on bioblitz logistics with a National Parks colleague, she mentioned a skull she found which likewise turned out to be a raccoon. Her iNat observation has a photo of the bottom jaw. This exercise also helped me respond to a comment on a previous Dipper Ranch post and correct an ID to also be a raccoon skull.   
I hope to see you at the GOGA bioblitz. The Midpen staff will be working at the Rancho Corral de Tierra and Mori Point park sites on the San Mateo coast. If you want to help with the inventory, go here and sign up before the event. Bring your family and give iNaturalist a try. There will also be a free two-day biodiversity festival in the Presidio in San Francisco with nature exhibits, the Banana Slugs Band, photography workshops with National Geographic photographers and more described here.

Thousands of convergent lady beetles taking a break on a warm winter day. I've just walked you through 3 mammals, 1 amphibian, 1 insect, 1 plant, 1 fungus, and 1 amoeba I've observed in coastal California in the last seven weeks and reported on iNaturalist. Imagine the possibilities at the GOGA bioblitz with many more people, acres and in the middle of spring.   
Wolf's milk, Lycogala epidendrum
California buckeye, Aesculus californica
Dusky-footed woodrat, Neotoma fuscipes
Sierran treefrog, Pseudacris sierra
California newt, Taricha torosa torosa
Rough-skinned newt, Taricha granulosa
Santa Crux gartersnake, Thamnophis atratus atratus
Turkey tail, Trametes versicolor . . . or
False turkey tail, Stereum hirsutum (see discussion in comments below)
California ground squirrel, Spermophilus beecheyi
Convergent lady beetle, Hippodamia convergens

Hunting Slime Molds, Adele Conover, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2001.


  1. Your enthusiasm is infectious, Cindy. I wish you lots of fun at the Bioblitz! I'm half joking, but are you shilling for Ken-ichi? Like I asked before, what do you do when you don't have cell phone reception to access apps, which is the case in almost all the places I prefer to hike? And, I could very well be wrong, but I think your fungus is actually false turkey tail (Stereum hirsutum), not a "true" turkey tail (Trametes versicolor).

  2. When you don't have reception, the I-Naturalist application saves the observation on your phone and sends it later. I often wait until I get home to send the observations and then I spend more time on the website portal adding description and if needed can research ID before making it a publicly-viewed observation. I've only met Ken-ichi once and at that time no money passed between us. And you just highlighted a very good point that I didn't get to in the post. It helps if you know something about the key characteristics of a group in order to know what to photograph or note in the description. I've realized that I should be taking photos of the undersides of fungus. Your false turkey tail ID looks good but too bad I didn't photograph the underside. So, if you were on iNat, you could have commented on the observation and provided same links as above. Sometimes that starts a conversation among several participants. There is also a "research grade" identification that I have not quite figured out. So I am going to take the info you provided here and throw it on iNat and see what happens. These are all points one should be aware of when using crowd-sourced tools.

    1. I started to summarize what I thought the research grade meant and then decided to just look it up instead of edu-guessing. But basically when your ID has been confirmed by others it becomes research grade (and meet some other criteria of locale, date etc).

    2. ah, yah. Not what we would give the 'research' stamp of approval to in the office but again you got to put it in the context of citizen science. We use the Natural Resources Database often for plant and animal lists for preserves. I've seen the original data and it is generally good but if I see something odd on it, I know to check.

    3. Thanks for at least entertaining the idea that my Stereum ID might be correct.

    4. I get so obsessive sometimes. I kept my eyes peeled this past month, and here's what I found for you, Cindy:

  3. If you also see witch's butter, then you know for sure it's false turkey tail. Witch's butter parasitizes Stereum hirsutum.

  4. I had some brilliantly colored turkey tail on my blog three days ago. Tomorrow some witch's butter will be served up, plus two unknown to me new fungi.

  5. Ha! Told you I've seen groundies in RR. ;)

  6. That sighting was in Rancho San Antonio which you also told me about. Once I was looking, it was duh, of course I've seen them there. Common animals like that don't sink in but when you described how important they are in shaping the environment and feeding predators, then it is noteworthy. And I think iNat is a good place to encourage many people to record those types of sightings. I did look for ground squirrels when I was up at Russian Ridge last week and didn't see any but it was raining hard. We were checking out dens sites on a hill from the distance, thought they were fox, and then someone who took a photo with tele lens later checked them and had a burrowing owl on the mound! I saw an old-time ranger recently and asked him and he said they used to call the Alder Springs T- intersection inside the RR01 gate Squirrel Flats because of all the ground squirrels there and that golden eagles used to regular hunt squirrels there. That was when the property was newly a preserve and before they kicked the cattle off, about 20 years ago. You can bet I will keep my eye peeled for ground squirrels.

  7. thanks for the iNaturalist tip. I've been wanting to do an online project on our local flora and this looks perfect for it.

    1. Glad to help Hollis. I write this blog mostly to share info (and joy!) so its nice to know it's been helpful. I had a few days this week when I wanted to give up just because of a stupid spelling error but then I spent Thursday with a handful of encouraging colleagues and I'm all ready to go again.

    2. yeah, my experience is that blogging is great and sometimes a real burden. Still figuring out how to deal. I'd be interested in hearing more on what you think of iNaturalist. I'm trying it, but haven't decided yet if that's what I want to use. Sure seems easy enough! cheers

  8. I got a nice surprise today. I was digging the mud out of an old springbox and found a California giant salamander wedged in the crack next to the pipe dripping from the hill above. It's been a long time since I've seen a giant sallie on the Dipper Ranch so I posted it on iNaturalist. I couldn't convince it to come out of the hole so the photo is a "rump shot" but there is no question it is a giant. You can see the photo on iNaturalist if you search for "dipperanch" under People tab.

    1. Actually, you can see the giant salamander observation/photo by clicking on the iNaturalist link I have in the right-hand column above.

    2. I tried iNaturalist -- posted observations with photos from a Calif vacation last week (sigh, now over).

      I really like it, very easy to use, and I'm tempted to go with it for my project. Not a lot of use in Wyoming yet (1300 observations, but mainly in northwest part of the state).

  9. The California Conservation Corps will be doing their Bioblitz Dance live at the Biodiversity Festival on March 28 in San Francisco. If you've ever worked with these young people, it's great to see them liven up our serious biology.

    1. Very cool! I wish I could be there!! :)

    2. One week to go to the big event. I meet NPS staff at my hike sites tomorrow for a preview. I'm excited. Already I am thinking about going to the next two years of National Park Service bioblitzes (it's a ten year effort supported by National Geographic). I wonder where they will be. Guess I should survive this bioblitz first. And work on my dance steps :>


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