Saturday, June 06, 2009

Spanish Moss and Dragonflies

We have taken off a few days before preparations begin for summer camp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. During last Monday's Prothonotary Warbler banding, we spied Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) in bloom. The plant is neither Spanish nor a moss and is in the pineapple family!

Although reproduction occurs mainly by pieces of the plant being transported by animals to a new location, the plant does flower between April and June. You will need to look closely as the flower is quite small and can be difficult to see in the gray leaves and stems. The seed pod that develops after the flower contains numerous seeds at the end of a downy tuft. Therefore, reproduction by seed can occur when wind transports the tufted seed to a new location. Spanish Moss is an epiphyte, so it does need a host on which to grow, but it takes nothing from the host as would a parasite. The gray scales on the leaves and stems absorb windborne or waterborne minerals and moisture from the atmosphere.

The resilient fibers of the plant and its resistance to insects have made Spanish Moss suitable for stuffing mattresses or furniture. The plant does not collect redbugs (chiggers) until in touches the ground. As the plant does not range to latitudes higher than southeast Virginia, children in the south certainly had fun at their northern cousins' expense when suggesting Spanish Moss as a fashion accoutrement!

The name was likely given due to the plant's resemblance to the beards of Spanish explorers. It was originally known as "Spanish beard." A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina (R. D. Porcher & D. A. Rayner) states that "It [Tillandsia usneoides] is the only member of the genus to occur north of south GA." However, we recently saw something similar to Spanish Moss covering trees outside the parking garage by Charleston's Gaillard Auditorium.

During this Monday's Project PROTHO banding, we found a Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) meal on the side of a fallen cypress tree. A dragonfly had emerged from its nymph exoskeleton in which form it had spent the last 5-7 years and was allowing its adult form to take shape, dry, and stiffen. Once the transformation is complete, the dragonfly can fly away and begin its adult life, which may last from a few weeks to a couple of months. They are on numerous dinner plans, including some dragonfly species. We have observed adult Prothonotary Warblers bringing dragonflies (already de-winged and pummeled thoroughly on the boardwalk or log) to their young at the nest.

The Prothonotary Warbler is not likely to catch the agile dragonfly on the wing, but the dragonfly is defenseless while it waits for its wings to reach operational status.

Translated from Prothonotary, it would be "like shooting fish is a barrel!"

Images by Mark Musselman

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