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West Virginia State Parks – Naturalist Corner
Frequently Asked Questions

ANIMALS - GENERAL

Q. Why do animals' eyes glow in the dark?

A. That eerie glow you see when you shine a light into the eyes of a deer, cat, or dog comes from a reflective layer behind or within the retina of the eye. This reflective layer is called the tapetum lucidum (Latin for "bright carpet").

The retina lines the back of the eye and contains light receptors. As light passes through the retina, it is absorbed by these receptors, producing a signal that is sent to the brain. The brain "computes" an image from these signals. Any light that is not absorbed would not contribute to the image. The tapetum lucidum reflects this unabsorbed light back into the retina, increasing the ability of animals with this layer to see at night or in low light.

Q. I have seen hundreds of crows flocking together and making a lot of noise. Why do they do this?

A. Crows may assemble in groups for a number of reasons. I have seen thousands of crows (over 10,000) assemble in a winter communal roost in Tucker County, West Virginia. The crows collect at night at the roost site and disperse during the day to feed in smaller groups. Feeding areas may be up to 50 miles away. I have also observed crows in smaller groups mobbing an owl or hawk during the day. These behaviors are not completely understood.

Researchers continue to study the social behavior of crows. Some observations indicate that there is a social hierarchy within groups. In fact, there is evidence that crows will attack and sometimes kill an individual within the group. This could be in response to an injured bird, an individual challenging the existing social structure, or an interloper from another group. This act may be the source of the name for a large group of crows-a "murder." 

Q. Do bats have poor vision? What about the expression "blind as a bat"?

A. Most bats have good vision. We usually just hear about their ability to navigate and locate food in the dark, using echolocation. Some bats, such as fruit bats, are day-active and use vision to locate food. Some bats may use a combination of vision and echolocation. The expression "blind as a bat" comes from folklore and myth. 

AMPHIBIANS AND REPTILES

Q. I found a salamander with a stubby tail. Is this normal?

A. Some salamanders may "throw" their tails when attacked by a predator or when we try to pick them up. This is a defense that allows the salamander to escape while the predator is focused on the wriggling piece of tail that was left behind. The salamander will gradually regenerate the missing tail section. This is why you sometimes find one with a stubby tail.

The problem for the salamander is that it loses an energy reserve (muscle mass and fat) contained in the detached tail. This may have a negative impact on the ability of the animal to survive. 

Q. I located a small turtle today and I am trying to find out what type of turtle it was. It's top shell wasn't real hard nor was it real soft. The shell was brown in color with bumps or spikes on it and on each side of the shell near its tail there were two or three points much like the points on a leaf. It also had a very long tail, at least one half the two-inch length of its body.

A. From your description of the shell (carapace), color, and tail length, I would say you found a young Common Snapping Turtle. The adults can attain a weight of 40 pounds and a carapace length of 18 inches. Large snapping turtles can deliver a dangerous bite, so be careful. You may want to check out the Marshall University herpetology Web page http://www.marshall.edu/herp/. It features photographs and descriptions of most West Virginia reptiles and amphibians.

Q. How does a frog croak?

A. First, let me say that not only do frogs croak, but some frogs and toads chirp, trill, or snore. Usually only the male frog or toad calls, to attract a female and defend a territory.

They make these sounds or calls by closing their mouth and nostrils, and then pumping air back and forth between their lungs and an inflatable vocal sac (like blowing up and letting the air out of a balloon). The air moves over the vocal cords, producing the sound. Some do not have vocal sacs, just enlarged throats. Because their mouth and nostrils are closed, some can even call under water!

BLACK BEARS

Q. What is the black bear population for West Virginia by counties? Are there any groups or organizations that support our state animal? Is there an estimate of the total population, and are they in all 55 counties?

A. The black bear is our largest animal in West Virginia and always of interest. The current statewide population of black bears in West Virginia is estimated at over 8,000. They occur in at least 38 counties. Detailed, ongoing studies were initiated in 1999 by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources to determine age structure, population estimates, trends, causes of mortality, and behavior of our native black bear. These studies are being conducted in four southern counties (Boone, Fayette, Kanawha, and Raleigh) and five northern counties (Randolph, Tucker, and parts of Barbour, Grant and Webster). Results have shown an increase in growth of the southern population, with average litter sizes greater than those of the northern counties.

This research continues to give us the ability to conserve and properly manage the black bear within West Virginia. Many different conservation and user groups support black bear research across the nation. Three groups have specifically supported research in West Virginia-the Campfire Conservation Fund, Inc., the West Virginia Bowhunters Association, and the West Virginia Trophy Hunters Association.

FORESTS

Q. What kind of plants are in the WV forests? I am trying to find out for our Cub Scouts.

A. We have a wide variety of forest types in the state that contain many different kinds of plants. First, I would like to briefly talk about the structure of a forest. Forests usually contain four different layers; from the top down, the canopy, understory, shrub, and ground cover. Plant types differ in each layer and some of the layers may be absent in a particular forest type.

The canopy is generally made up of mature trees that define the forest type. Some common forest types include Mixed Hardwoods (white oak, shagbark hickory, and yellow poplar), Northern Hardwoods (American beech, yellow birch, and red maple) and Oak/Pine (chestnut oak and Virginia pine). The Mixed Hardwood forest type generally occurs in the western counties, the Northern Hardwood in the higher, central mountain counties, and the Oak/Pine in the eastern counties.

The understory is located just below the canopy. It may contain both canopy species and other kinds of trees. These trees must be able to grow under lower light conditions, due to the shading effect of the taller canopy layer. Dogwoods, striped maple, sourwood, serviceberries, and magnolias are found in the understory, depending on forest type and location.

The shrub layer contains small trees and shrubs. These may include (again, depending on the forest type and location) red spruce, redbud, blueberries, mountain holly, greenbriers, witch-hazel, pawpaw, eastern hemlock, rhododendrons, and azaleas.

The forest floor is covered by a wide variety of plants. Ferns, mosses, grasses, and some of our spring and summer wildflowers are usually present. Many of our native orchids grow in forest habitats, such as pink lady's slipper, large round-leaved orchid, downy rattlesnake plantain, and puttyroot.

Forests are dynamic, constantly changing as conditions such as light, moisture, nutrients, and temperature change. New tree diseases are currently having a great impact on our forests.

Q. Is there a fall foliage forecast on any of the DNR Web pages?

A. The fall foliage forecast map is available (seasonally) on the West Virginia State Parks Web page at http://www.wvstateparks.com/fallmap.html. Enjoy the color this fall!

INSECTS

Q. Can dragonflies bite? I was biking on one of the trails in Morgantown, and a huge insect got stuck between my sunglasses and eyelid. The darn thing bit my eyelid. Boy, did it hurt! I think it was a dragonfly. Just wondering.... Thanks!

A. Yes, as you experienced directly, dragonflies can bite. Normally their bite is just mildly painful, unless they get a hold on a tender area like your eyelid! Dragonflies are beneficial, predatory insects catching prey on the wing. They eat dozens of small insects like mosquitoes, each day.

Was it a dragonfly? Dragonflies come in many different sizes, but are usually between two to three inches in length. They have large compound eyes and long bodies. The two pairs of wings are held straight out to the sides of the body. They look primitive and one group actually contains two "living fossils."

TREES

Q. My friend has a couple of pawpaw trees and I like the fruit. After eating the fruit I dried some of the seeds. Can the seed from pawpaws be planted to produce new trees?

A. You can start pawpaws from seed, but there are several steps you must follow. Unfortunately, the first step is to not let the seeds dry out. Drying can lower the germination rate. The next time you have an opportunity to obtain fresh seeds, place them in a plastic food storage bag filled with moist peat moss or paper towels. Most seeds must be chilled before they will germinate and pawpaws are no different. Place the bag containing the seeds in your refrigerator for at least three to four months (not in the freezer - this will kill the seed). Most tree and shrub seedlings should be grown in tall pots to allow good root development. Grow them in shade the first year, and then transplant to a permanent location. You can still try to start the seeds you have, but you will probably have better success following the steps listed above.

WILDFLOWERS

Q. Does Mullein grow naturally in WV and in what type areas is it found?

A. Great or Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a native of Europe that has become well established along roadsides and in waste places throughout West Virginia, since its introduction to this country. 

PLANTS

Q. The tips of my Christmas ferns turn brown and curl up late in the summer. Is this some kind of disease? If so, what is it and how do I cure it?

A. If the brown substance is only on the backs of the fronds, it may be the spore-bearing structures. Ferns reproduce by spores (tiny dust-like particles) that are contained in small, round capsules (sporangia). These capsules are sometimes grouped together in clusters (sori) with a protective covering or sheath (indusium). The sori can be arranged in many shapes and patterns on the back of fertile fronds, depending on species.

In the case of the Christmas fern, the sori are brown in color and tightly packed on the back of the sharply narrowed tip of the fertile fronds. This sharp narrowing can make the tip of the frond look shriveled or diseased.

If the edges of the entire frond are brown on the front and back, and brittle, it may be due to a lack of an adequate supply of water to the plant. Many ferns will exhibit these symptoms during a period of drought. 

Q. What is mistletoe and where do you find it?

A. Mistletoe is a green flowering plant that grows as a parasite on certain trees. We have one native species of true mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum) in West Virginia.

Mistletoe has a root-like structure that penetrates the bark and draws water and nutrients from the tree, and an aerial stem that grows from the tree branch. It can kill trees if it is allowed to spread throughout the crown. It is controlled by removing the infected branch or branches (removing the aerial stem only does not kill the plant). Mistletoe is spread from tree to tree mainly by birds that eat the berries and excrete the seeds.

You can find our species of mistletoe in a wide variety of trees. It is usually found in larger (older) trees and looks like a small, dense bush of twigs. It is very easy to see during winter (after deciduous trees have shed their leaves).

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