Two butterflies seen in the butterfly garden

Nature Mysteries


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What are those tall yellow flowers? Is this brown snake a copperhead? What is Raleigh's rarest lettuce? Why do mockingbirds flash their wings? What is this white fuzzy thing on my tree? What is this super long skinny worm?

The Nature Program is bringing some natural science to you by answering your questions about Raleigh's Nature Mysteries! 

Do you have a Nature Mystery question? We'd love to hear from you!

Email questions and photos to WilkersonNaturePreserve@raleighnc.gov Look for more answers to Raleigh's Nature Mysteries coming soon!

What are those tall yellow flowers?

Field of yellow flowers

Sunflowers is the ‘star’ flower of mid-summer gardens. Still, in late September, a different kind of tall yellow flower catches the attention of many people in natural areas around Raleigh.  

Often mistaken for planted sunflowers, these golden fields are entirely wild and are colored by the blooms of a native plant called “Yellow Crownbeard” (Verbesina occidentalis).

Crownbeard is a native member of the Sunflower Family. Like sunflowers, Crownbeard flowers are a valuable nectar source for pollinating bees and butterflies – and the timing of their blooms is perfect for the migrating Monarchs that pass through Raleigh in September.  Also, like sunflowers, after flowering, Crownbeard produces clusters of nutritious seeds (they look exactly like tiny sunflower seeds), which feed many songbirds as they prepare for winter. 

Although a field of Crownbeard is beautiful, the individual flowers are small and have an irregular appearance, and when examined closely, you will find that not all Yellow Crownbeard plants bloom with the same shade of yellow.
 

Hand holding bright yellow flower blooms

For unknown reasons, some Yellow Crownbeard plants have pale “lemon-yellow” flowers, while other plants have deeper “egg-yolk-yellow” colored flowers.

On any Crownbeard plant, all the flowers will be either “lemon-yellow” or all “egg-yolk-yellow” – never mixed. But plants of both colors may grow side-by-side in the same field, with the “egg-yolk-yellow” color being the most common.
 

Yellow Crownbeard only blooms for a short time – by October, these flowers will have faded away, and the loose petals can be knocked off earlier by rough weather.

So enjoy Raleigh’s all-natural late-September wildflower show!  They don’t last long, but they are a much-valued resource for fall butterflies and early-winter birds.

If you’re thinking of growing Yellow Crownbeard in your yard, this plant has one more valuable feature – deer don’t like to eat it!

Is this brown snake a copperhead?

Small brown snake on tree trunk

Raleigh is called the “City of Oaks”, but it could be called the “City of Reptiles”. We have many species of snakes, lizards, and turtles that live in backyards and forests throughout the city, but most attention goes to the one native reptile found in Raleigh that is venomous to humans – the copperhead.

The good news is, most snakes you’ll see in Raleigh are not copperheads. Many of Raleigh’s snake species are naturally small, brown-colored, and rarely grow much more than 1 foot long. These common “little brown snakes” are sometimes mistaken for “baby copperheads”.
 

Coiled up copperhead snake

Here’s how to know if the snake in your backyard is a Copperhead:

Does it have a brown-banded body (and maybe a bright yellow-green tail)? It could be a baby copperhead.

Does it have a brown body (but not with thick, dark bands) with a brown tail?  It is not a baby copperhead.

Brown snake with ruler on side to show how small

Let’s meet some of Raleigh’s most common snakes:

“Brown Snake” (Storeria dekayi)

The brown snake is possibly Raleigh’s most common snake. They are small and brown with little scattered dark spots on their back and a whitish-grey belly. They are a tiny, completely harmless cousin to the rat snake.
 

Tiny snake being held but hand with orange belly

Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata)

Also very small and brown and similar to the brown snake, the red-bellied snake has a belly that is a striking red or orange.

Tiny baby snake wrapped around thumb

Worm Snake (Carphophis amoenus)

Also brown colored and frequently found in mulch or dirt, the worm snake’s belly is noticeably pinkish.

Dark brown baby snake coiled up on ruler

Smooth Earthsnake (Virginia valeriae)

These uncommon small, plain brown snakes have slick, glossy scales and a grey belly.

Close up of snake body scales

Rough Earthsnake (Haldea striatula)

These snakes are often found near rocks and are very similar to Smooth Earthsnake, but the scales of Rough Earthsnakes each have a ridge or keel down their middle that can be seen when they are examined closely.

All these little brown snakes can be found in Raleigh backyards. It is also common in summer to find small young of other larger snake species, such as baby rat snakes, baby racers, and baby water snakes. While some of these snakes may have a brown body with bands when they are young, none of them have a bright yellow-green tip on their tail the way a baby copperhead can.

Take some time this summer to get to know the many tiny, helpful, harmless snakes that call Raleigh home!
 

What is Raleigh's rarest lettuce?

Greeen leafy plant growing from ground

Some lettuces we know well…iceberg, romaine, red-leaf, and Boston bibb are salad bowl favorites. But all our garden lettuce varieties (Lactuca sativa) came from Wild Lettuce (Lactuca spp.) ancestors.  

All Wild Lettuces are edible, but some taste much better than others.  Taste aside, Wild Lettuces are valuable for crossbreeding with our Garden Lettuce varieties, most often to improve disease resistance. Recent studies have also found that Wild Lettuces have higher Vitamin C levels than Garden Lettuce, and there is potential to use Wild Lettuces to improve the nutritional value in Garden Lettuce through crossbreeding as well.

The closest ancestor to our Garden Lettuce is the common ‘Prickly Lettuce’ (Lactuca serriola) which is often seen growing as a ‘weed’ on Raleigh roadsides.  Other Wild Lettuces are commonly found in Raleigh’s more natural habitats, including Canada Lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) and Woodland Lettuce (Lactuca floridana).

But there are some Wild Lettuce species that have become very rare in modern times – the rarest may be the Red Wood Lettuce (Lactuca hirsuta).

100 years ago Red Wood Lettuce was a more common wildflower – that was how it was described in the book “Wild Flowers Every Child Should Know” by Vassar College biologist Frederic Stack in 1909.  The tall red-purple-colored stems and clusters of small reddish-yellow flowers would make it a colorful sight in an open woodland glade.

Up close picture of small yellow flower bloom

But since those days red wood lettuce has almost vanished – in North Carolina, only 1 plant has been collected by scientists in the last 50 years (from Robeson County in 2010)!

Even finding one red wood lettuce plant in NC in 50 years is better than some other states – in Maryland and Connecticut it is believed to have gone extinct. In many other states, it is legally listed as “Endangered” or “Threatened”.

Why did red wood lettuce disappear? We don’t know, but it is highly edible. Rising deer populations in recent decades across the Eastern United States have impacted many highly edible wild plants.
 

Green leaf

For years the staff at Annie Louise Wilkerson Nature Preserve have searched Raleigh for a living Red Wood Lettuce without finding any. But plants have an amazing ability to hide – they can sleep as seeds in the soil, sometimes waiting years to grow – and deer cannot destroy sleeping seeds until they are triggered to sprout.

As last hope to revive long-lost plants, a 1/10th acre piece of land at Wilkerson Nature Preserve was fenced-off completely from deer in 2020, and then burned with help from the NC Forest Service in March of 2021.
 

Person conducting safe prescribed burn to forest floor

Chemicals in smoke have been proven in laboratory experiments to trigger germination in Lettuce seeds.  Shortly after the 2021 controlled burn, a baker’s dozen of 13 Red Wood Lettuce plants appeared inside the fenced area!  The fencing kept deer from eating the tender young sprouts, and by mid-summer, several Red Wood Lettuce plants at Wilkerson were producing flowers and seeds.

Lettuce growing up from ground

Biologists from several state agencies have since visited these plants, and specimens are being prepared for our regional University collections. The life cycle of Red Wood Lettuce is to die after producing seeds, so some new seeds are being saved, while other seeds are being allowed to fall back to the soil inside the fenced area. 

We do not know how long the Red Wood Lettuce seeds had been sleeping in Wilkerson Nature Preserve’s soil. Some wildflower seeds have been proven to survive in the soil for 100 years or more. How long these seeds were waiting here is a mystery.

Thanks to deer protection and a carefully planned fire, visitors to Wilkerson Nature Preserve this summer can take a trip back in time, to the long-ago days when the rare Red Wood Lettuce was still a “Wild Flower Every Child Should Know”.

Why do mockingbirds flash their wings?

Mockingbird with snake

Northern Mockingbirds are famous for their songs, not their feathers. With a mostly gray body, Mockingbirds don’t have much to attract the eye, except when they engage in a behavior called “wing-flashing”.

When “wing-flashing”, a Mockingbird will stand on the ground and spread out its wings to the sides, sometimes lifting them up often holding them stiffly out-spread for a second or two, before pulling them back down.  This shows off the white patches on its wings, which are hidden when the wings are folded and at rest.

Northern Mockingbirds are well known for their wing-flashing behavior – but why do they do it?

Some wing-flashing seems to be associated with bug-hunting, as Mockingbirds will often repeat flashes of their wings while walking through short grass and scanning the ground.  It is thought that the raising and lowering of their wings may cast shadows that startle bugs into moving, making it easier for the Mockingbird to then grab them.

But there is another time when Mockingbirds flash their wings – when they are threatened by predators, especially reptiles.  The hostility between Mockingbirds and snakes has been known for a long time – John James Audubon (in 1840) famously painted a large rattlesnake attacking a Mockingbird nest, and the Mockingbirds fighting back are – you guessed it – flashing their wings.

Mockingbird flashing snake

We don’t have large rattlesnakes in Raleigh, but you can observe Mockingbirds flashing their wings to intimidate other large and potentially bird-eating snakes we do have in our area, such as Black Rat Snakes.

This large snake will happily eat an entire nest full of bird eggs or chicks. But a not if a Mockingbird can do anything about it! Sensing a “snake in the grass” a Mockingbird rushes to the scene. The Mockingbird charges right up to the snake, wings “flashing” all the time:

Realizing this boldly “flashing” Mockingbird is not a fearful or helpless prey, even a 5-foot-long Rat Snake knows when it is time to retreat: Success for the Mockingbird’s defensive wing-flashing!

Not all Mockingbird wing-flashing is necessarily related to snake defense or bug-hunting – scientists think some wing-flashing may be used to signal to other birds or to serve other purposes we don’t yet understand.  So keep your eyes out for Mockingbird wing-flashing this summer, and enjoy another one of Raleigh’s Nature Mysteries.

What is this white fuzzy thing on my tree?

Raleigh is called the “City of Oaks”, and we all know oak trees normally grow acorns – but sometimes our oak trees will grow other things that seem like they should be growing on a different plant completely – like a ball of wooly “cotton”, or even a round, smooth “apple”!

In the spring, you can find often white or pinkish woolly cotton-like growths on white oak trees. They are the result of a tiny insect called the “Wool Sower Gall Wasp”. These are very small, non-stinging wasps that feed on plants.  When the tiny grubs of these wasps feed on an oak leaf, they produce chemicals that trigger the oak to grow these white cotton balls. The tiny wasp grubs live inside the cotton-ball, where they can feed on it while safely hidden from the sight of predators.

Base of tree with green growing leaves and fluffy white circle

The “Wool Sower” galls of spring are not the only galls of oak trees. In the summer and fall, another kind of plant wasp will trigger growths of round, smooth galls that can be the size and color of a small green or reddish apple. These “Oak Apples” are not edible for people, but they are edible to the Oak Apple Wasp’s larva.

Oak Apple galls can be found on many kinds of red oaks, while Wool Sower galls appear on white oaks.  All these galls are very small compared to the size of an oak tree, and they do the trees very little harm. The tiny, non-stinging gall wasps are themselves eaten by various insect-eating forest animals.  For humans, these tiny insects are another creature adding to the variety and richness of Raleigh’s forest ecosystems.

What is this super long skinny worm?

Long skinny white worm

Some worms we all know – like earthworms.  But there are other animals around us that are “worm-like” yet are completely unrelated to earthworms.

Earthworms are what biologists call “segmented worms” – you can easily see an earthworm’s body is divided into many small, round sections, with visible creases between each section.

There are other “worm-like” animals living around us with bodies without segments.  These include “flatworms” (with flat, soft, smooth bodies), and “roundworms” (usually very tiny with round, smooth bodies).

The strangest of these worm-like animals may be the “Horsehair Worms”.  These worms can be very long, extremely thin, and quite tough and wiry.  They are usually 6 to 8 inches long, but some species can grow to 6 feet long, while still being only 1 or 2 mm wide.  
 

Long skinny worm on top of plastic container with hand holding it

These worms are perfectly smooth, without any creases or segments like earthworms have.  (These worms are so different from other “worms” that biologists place them in their own Phylum – the Phylum Nematomorpha.)

The common name “Horsehair Worm” or “Hairworm” comes from the idea that they look like a long, thin, piece of horse-hair magically come to life!

Horsehair Worms are harmless to humans, our pets, and our gardens.  They are predators, which live as internal parasites primarily in large insects, such as grasshoppers, cockroaches, and some beetles.  They eat their insect host from the inside and then leave the dead insect behind to lay eggs in shallow water or in moist soil.  

Until very recently, all North American horsehair worms were believed to be aquatic, but a terrestrial (soil-living) species was recently discovered by Dr. Christina Anaya and colleagues, from the states of Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Dr. Anaya has confirmed the ID of Horsehair Worm photos from Raleigh’s Wilkerson Nature Preserve, proving that terrestrial Horsehair Worms live in the Carolinas as well.

If *you* find a terrestrial Horsehair Worm, let us know! Citizen scientists may be the key to unraveling the mysteries of this newly discovered creature in our state.

Contact

 

Do you have a Nature Mystery question? We'd love to hear from you!

Email questions and photos to WilkersonNaturePreserve@raleighnc.gov

Look for more answers to Raleigh's Nature Mysteries coming soon!

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Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
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Nature Parks, Preserves, and Programs

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