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Matt Pelikan

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Is this a golden tortoise beetle?

What was this tiny golden beetle, hidden within the petals of a tulip? — Danielle Zerbonne

The great outdoors can produce baffling mysteries. MVTimes Wild Side columnist Matt Pelikan tries his best to solve them. Got a question for the Wild Side? Send it to onisland@mvtimes.com

Dear Wild Side,

I found this beautiful bug in an equally beautiful tulip today. Pretty sure it’s a golden tortoise beetle, but thought you could elaborate for our readers?


Danielle Zerbonne

Vineyard Haven

The Pelikan brief:

Interesting little beetles — the use by larvae of feces cakes as a defense mechanism is quite amusing!

The longer answer:

This odd creature is a so-called “tortoise beetle,” named for its vaguely turtle-like shape. The beetle’s exoskeleton extends outward, forming a transparent apron, which may offer protection from predators. As is often the case with common names for insects, “tortoise beetle” is really a generic term: taxonomically speaking, tortoise beetles are a “tribe” or part of a sub-family, with about 30 species occurring in the United States and more than 1,700 existing worldwide. I can’t tell for sure which species Danielle photographed, but only a few tortoise beetles occur in our region, and of these, the species that seems closest to Danielle’s bug is Charidotella purpurata. Like the vast majority of insects, this beetle is not well enough known to have acquired an English name, though it’s a widespread and apparently fairly common species. Another possibility is Charidotella bicolor, known as the golden tortoise beetle, a close relative which is also widespread.

Tortoise beetles, both larval and adult, feed on plants, and in general this group specializes in eating members of the plant family Convolvulaceae (this is the family that contains, among other plants, the sweet potato and the morning glory). In warm climates, some kinds of tortoise beetles can be agricultural pests, devouring enough sweet potato leaves to damage a crop. But these beetles do not appear to be especially common on the Vineyard, and sweet potatoes are not a local crop, so it is safe to assume that Danielle’s beetle is doing nobody any harm. (Ornamental sweet potato vines are widely available as annual container plants, and it might be fun to grow one and see if tortoise beetles turn up on it.)

Tortoise beetles lay eggs in spring, usually on the underside of the leaves of the plant the adult prefers to feed on. The eggs hatch into remarkably homely larvae, flattened, slug-like, and equipped with branching spines. The larvae of some species are said to assemble a sort of shield, consisting of debris pasted together with feces, which they hold over themselves as protection from would-be predators. It would surely deter me! Tortoise beetle larvae mature over a period of a few weeks, pupate, and emerge as adults, and then enter a dormant state called “diapause” to overwinter. The onset of warm weather rouses the adults, which seek out an appropriate food source, and mate and lay eggs if they are female, starting the next generation.

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What the heck is this alien-looking growth on a West Tisbury tree?! — Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

The great outdoors can produce baffling mysteries. MVTimes Wild Side columnist Matt Pelikan tries his best to solve them. Got a question for the Wild Side? Send it here.

Dear Matt,

I saw this growing on a cedar in West Tisbury. They seem prone to strange orange growths;  I have noticed similar ones before.  Alien looking thing! Any idea what it is?

-DZ, West Tisbury

Dear DZ,

Appearances to the contrary, your cedar trees have not been infected by space aliens! Those knobby growths, sprouting orange tentacles under a mild spring rain, are a common fungus known as cedar-apple rust.

As the name of this odd organism suggests, it’s a parasite that alternates between two different species of plants as hosts. Spores produced in the orange fingers on the knobs on your cedar drift through the air (potentially as far as several miles!) and, if they’re lucky, land on a tender, young leaf on an apple tree that is starting to break dormancy. If conditions are warm and wet enough to suit the fungus, it infects the apple leaf, producing reddish lesions that persist through the season and may eventually kill the leaf.

Triggered by warm spring rain, the production of spores by the cedar-dwelling generation of cedar-apple rust is timed to coincide with the period when apple leaves are most susceptible to infection. When mature, the fungal growth on the apple produces spores that, echoing the springtime process, can infect red cedars, completing the fungus’s complicated life cycle.

Cedar-apple rust doesn’t seem to hurt cedar trees much. But in its apple-eating avatar, this fungus can defoliate and kill apple trees, or mar the fruits and make them unmarketable. Apple varieties differ in how well they resist the fungus, so choosing stock carefully can help avoid problems in areas where cedar-apple rust is a problem. And orchard owners can also treat their trees with fungicide in spring, when incoming spores are prevalent. In theory, removing all the cedars (or apples) in an area would also eradicate the fungus by breaking its life cycle, but this solution is rarely practical. I remove the fungus from the cedars in my yard, at least the ones I can reach, to try to reduce the risk that a neighbor’s ornamental crab apple (highly susceptible!) will get infected. But I’m not sure this has any real effect on the local prevalence of the fungus.

Such dual-host life cycles, called “complex” or “indirect” by biologists, may seem implausible but are actually pretty common in the parasite world. Indirect life cycles evolve to help a parasite get past a difficulty posed by its primary host. I’m just speculating here, but in the case of cedar-apple rust, the fungus may essentially be a disease of apple leaves which evolved the ability to use cedar as a refuge in winter, when the deciduous apple trees have no leaves on them for the fungus to inhabit.

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For decades, Lambert’s Cove residents have listened for the first pinkletink call of the year.

Also called chorus frogs or tree frogs, peepers can make quite a racket considering they are barely an inch long. — File photo by Lisa Vanderhoop

You may have heard them, even if you didn’t know it. Spring peepers, known as pinkletinks, are a favorite herald of spring on Martha’s Vineyard, with a chirp that sounds less like a frog than a birdcall, perhaps crossed with a whistle and a fire alarm. As the weather warms, their calls become the soundtrack to rural Island life, a fact noted in published reports.

Whether because of the marshy ecosystem that pinkletinks prefer, or simply because the residents keep a closer ear out than most, the first pinkletink reports of the spring often come from Lambert’s Cove in West Tisbury, where bragging rights are at stake.

“I’ve been in competition with Alex Goethals for years,” said Nancy Abbott of Lambert’s Cove, who holds the honor of this year’s first pinkletink report, called in to The Times at 7:20 pm on March 20.

“Every year I call in an hour after him, or 15 minutes. We’ve been hearing them since my husband and I built our house here in the 80s, but after the papers started publishing the pinkletinks I started seeing Alex’s name in the papers and I thought, I want to beat Alex.”

“I’m surprised to hear about it,” exclaimed Mr. Goethals in a telephone call with the Times. “We’ve never met!”

Nonetheless, he quickly rose to defend his title. “Most years, I report them first. I heard them March 20 this year, right here in the yard, but I was a little slow calling in.”

“Uh huh,” Ms. Abbott chuckled in a subsequent call with the Times. “Sure he did.”

The perfect place, or the perfect listeners?

Thomas Goethals, Alex’s uncle, was once the listener to beat. “I started following the pinkletinks in the 1940s,” he told The Times. “I heard them every year. I’ve moved a little farther away from the ponds, though, so I don’t hear them as much anymore. Nancy lives next to a pond;  that’s probably why she heard them first.”

Ms. Abbott had a similar opinion. “The pinkletinks are probably heard first on Lambert’s Cove because there are a lot of cranberry bogs here that have been let go,” she said. “They’ve become streams and ponds and kettleholes, little wet spots that the pinkletinks like.”

Ms. Abbott’s neighbor, Sandy Fisher, was the second caller to report pinkletinks this year. She hoped the honor would go to her daughter, Connie Toteanu, who heard them on the morning of March 21.

“She came running in shouting, ‘Mom mom mom, pinkletinks!” said Ms. Fisher. “We used to compete with Anthony Silva. He always used to win before he passed away. He was at the top of Seth’s Pond Hill and his whole backyard was a swamp.”

Ms. Fisher had thoughts on why all the calls come from Lambert’s Cove.

“I used to caretake near Felix Neck, and I didn’t hear them there, like here. I couldn’t tell you anything scientific, but we do have a lot of swamp here. We also keep an ear out, though.”

Alex Goethals agreed. “I have a vibrant swamp outside my window, so I can’t avoid them,” he said. “I’ve been paying attention about 10 years, but it’s unavoidable, I can hear them through the walls.”

Folk wisdom is backed by spring peeper ecoscience. Times Wildside columnist Matt Pelikan, a restoration ecologist for The Nature Conservancy, said that the marsh and wetland aspect of Lambert’s Cove certainly contributed. “They can become almost deafening when you’re up close,” he said. “Physically painful.”

Another reason he hypothesized was the lack of fish, which eat pinkletink larvae.

“But I actually have more questions than answers, like whether blackbirds and redwing blackbirds feed on pinkletinks,” he said. “We forget that how we perceive a species is not how other species perceive them. Hey, they’re a good source of protein.”

Finally, he touched on perhaps the heart of the issue.

“Lambert’s Cove is also where people expect to hear them,” he said.