Flora and Fauna on the Vineyard

This isn’t meant to be a complete guide to the native wildlife and wildflowers of the Vineyard; but there’s enough here to get you started. And perhaps to help you avoid the skunks and poison ivy.

Things to Be Wary Of

Poison Ivy - Do Not Touch

Poison Ivy - Do Not Touch
Poison Ivy - Do Not Touch

Eastern Striped Skunk - Do Not Pet, Feed, or Fondle

Other Fun Flora & Fauna

Common Slipper Shell

Common Slipper Shell (image courtesy of Wren Wallis)
Common Slipper Shell (image © Wren Wallis 2016)
Beach Combing (image © Wren Wallis 2016)

Sometimes called Lady’s Slippers, the Common Slipper Shell is a variety of snail (Crepidula fornicata). You’ll often find the empty shells cast up on the dry beach in a mass. Live ones will cling to pilings, Horseshoe crabs or Moon snails or each other in a stack.

Crepidula fornicata is biologically miraculous in that they all start out as male; smaller individuals in a stack are males. Over time, hormones in the water persuade some individuals to become female. Once they become female, they increase in size and remain female.

There’s a similar variety called a Convex Slipper Shell (Crepidula convexa). It’s not as commonly found on the Vineyard, but it does occur.

Horseshoe Crabs

Horseshoe Crab (image courtesy of Chosovi)
Horseshoe Crab (image courtesy of Chosovi)

The Atlantic horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus, is found all along the eastern coast of the U.S. as well as the Gulf Coast of Mexico. It’s not really a crab; technically, it’s a living fossil, more closely related to spiders than crabs. You’ll find them along the tide line at the beach, often still living; sometimes, not. They also cast their shells or molt. I’m a fan of horseshoe crabs, so bear with me.

The female crab is larger than the male, and can grow up to two feet in size, if you count the tail. Both sexes have nine eyes (two compound lateral eyes, a pair of median eyes that are able to detect both visible light and ultraviolet light, a single endoparietal eye, and a pair of rudimentary lateral eyes on the top (the Latin name of this species is inspired by the one-eyed cyclops Polyphemus in the Odyssey). They also have  pair of eyes located near the mouth, and a sort of primitive eye in the form of a cluster of photoreceptors on their spine-like tail (technically called a telson). They spend most of their adult life crawling along the floor of the sea, foraging, where there»s not much light. While horseshoe crabs aren’t terribly perceptive visually, they are extremely sensitive to even minute changes in light.

When horseshoe crabs swim, they swim upside down, with their legs in the air, rendering the eyes on the underside especially useful. They can potentially live to be 20 years old.

Horseshoe crabs have blue blood, because their blood is based on hemocyanin, a copper-based chemical, and thus blue. Horseshoe blood, like that of most invertebrates like mollusks or sponges contains mobile defensive cells called amoebocytes. Much like human “white cells,” amoebocytes defend the horseshoe crab against various toxins. The efficacy of horseshoe ameobocytes relies on a substance known coagulogen. When horseshoe crabs amoebocytes encounter a toxin, they isolates it immediately by causing the blood to congeal around the toxin.

Consequently horseshoe blood is harvested via syringe in order to extract the coagulogen which is then used in a standard lab test named after the horseshoe crab, Limulus amebocyte lysate or LAL test. Its’s used to test instruments or implants or drugs—anything that might come into contact with blood; it’s required by the FDA.

Supposedly harvesting their blood via syringe and returning horseshoes does not harm them, but that’s not really clear. And the population is dwindling.

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee
Black-capped Chickadee

The black-capped chickadee is a permanent resident of Martha’s Vineyard. A small-fast moving member of the Tit family, it’s ubiquitous. You’ll probably hear it before you see it. Chickadees are arborial acrobats, clinking to twigs, or branches, and often, hanging upside down. They’re friendly, easily enticed to eat from a hand or a feeder, and common just about everywhere.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird (photo by Peter Massas)
Gray Catbird (photo by Peter Massas)

The Gray catbird, usually just referred to as a Catbird, is a relative of the Mockingbird is named for its odd feline-sounding cry. The Latin name, Dumetella carolinensis means roughly “small bird of the thorny bushes,” since the Gray catbird favors bushes and shrubs. You’ll often hear or see it hopping in the low hedges near the conference room at the Island Inn. Unlike Mockingbirds, the Catbird often sings from inside a thicket, where it is hidden from view, causing people to hunt for the stray kitten they hear.

While it really does sound like a cat, the Gray catbird can imitate other birds, dogs, lawnmowers and, well, all sorts of sounds. It can even produce two sounds at once.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal (male) via Wikimedia Commons
Northern Cardinal (male) via Wikimedia Commons
Northern Cardinal (female) via Wikimedia Commons
Northern Cardinal (female) via Wikimedia Commons

The Northern Cardinal or Cardinalis cardinalis is a fairly large bird, bigger than a sparrow, smaller than a Mourning Dove, with a flamboyant crest and a lovely song. The male is a bright scarlet, and the female is a more subdued dun with scarlet highlights. Both the male and the female have a bright red-orange triangular bill and black “mask” on their faces.

Cardinals like to perch and chirp. You’ll probably hear the chip-chip-chip call they make when they’re feeding or their song before you see cardianls. They are fond of the trees in the Island Inn parking lot, and the long balcony area near the Staff lounge. For a representative recording, go here and scroll down to “Songs and call.”

Eastern Striped Skunk

Skunks are four-legged small mammals sometimes mistaken for cats. They aren’t cats, and they aren’t tame. The word skunk is derived from Proto-Algonquianšeka·kwa : šek-, urine + *-a·kw, fox, bushy-tailed animal. Their Latin name Mephitis mephitis means “malodorous.”

There are a number of different kinds of skunks; those on Martha’s Vineyard are Eastern Striped Skunks.

Skunks are best known for their ability to spray a odiferous  liquid from anal scent glands  as a defense when they feel threatened or startled. Generally speaking, the skunk will engage in a warning display of hissing, foot-stamping, and tail-flourishing before spraying. Still it’s best to not frighten them; while they are almost blind, they have excellent hearing and a very good sense of smell.

Skunks are omnivores, eating insects, worms, small reptiles, eggs, and a variety of berries and plants. They also regularly check garbage cans. Skunks are quite common on Martha’s Vineyard, and you’ll often see them sauntering around the garbage collection areas at dusk.

They aren’t pets, though, and shouldn’t be fed or otherwise bothered; they can carry rabies. Keep your dogs on a leash. If you see a skunk, just turn around and go the other way, or be very still and avoid startling it. The odor really is pretty bad, though it can be removed.

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy - Do Not Touch
Poison Ivy - Do Not Touch

Poison Ivy or Eastern Poison Ivy or Toxicodendron radicans is a climbing vine, bush or shrub with a characteristic cluster of almond-shaped glossy leaves in clusters of three.

The leaves are glossy, with smooth edges, and each group of three is on its own stem.

You may see it climbing like a vine up a tree or over a wall. It may look like a creeping vine growing close to the ground.

In autumn the leaves are glossy and attractively colored in shades of orange and red.  In spring and summer the leaves are glossy and green. Poison Ivy  may have white berries in late fall.

Leaflets three; let it be
Berries white, run in fright

The leaves, stems, roots and berries contain a toxic chemical that produces an unpleasant uncomfortable itching rash. In some people the rash rapidly becomes blisters and oozing sores. These are uncomfortable but easily treated, usually with topical steroids.

Don’t touch the plant or an animal or clothing item that has had contact with it before carefully washing the contact area with soap and water to remove the oil that the plant exudes.

There’s considerable variance in terms of specific poison ivy plants and their appearance, but they all have glossy leaves in groups of three.

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