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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Urti-WHO now???

The following incident did not take place on the Link Trail, but rather a few miles away in Oneida. It is relevant to this journal because your child may encounter a cocoon from the same species of caterpillar on the trail.

Grace and I babysat Dylan and Abby for a few hours while their parents went out to celebrate their anniversary. While the kids played on the lawn I spent some time snapping pictures of spiders. In order to steady my hand, I grabbed a block of wood to prop up my arm. There happened to be a cocoon on this block of wood, and Dylan noticed it. The kids poked at it, which I though harmless enough. Little did I know what perils awaited our young charges. (CUE DRAMATIC MUSIC)

Well before his parents got back, Dylan was complaining about discomfort in his hand. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but he asked me to take a picture of his thumb soon after he touched the cocoon. I had forgotten all about this until weeks later, when I was going through my pictures from that day. There was a series of shots of the hairs embedded in his thumb - hairs I didn't even know were there when I took the shots!

Grace took a close look and noticed tiny hairs sticking out of both of the children's fingers and palms. I was shocked. The only time I'd heard of something like this was when, visiting Arizona in 2003, I was warned about the hairs of the teddy bear cholla. But I had no idea that hairs from a soft-looking cocoon could get stuck in the skin! I remembered that the best way to remove teddy bear cholla hairs is to apply Elmer's glue or duct tape and then peel it off, so I went and found some tape.

Thankfully the hairs from the cocoon don't burn like those from the teddy bear cholla; they seemed to cause the kids considerable itching, but not what you'd call pain. So they were patient and relatively fidget-free while we pressed the tape onto their little piggies again and again. It took a long time, but eventually we got most if not all of them out.

I thought that was the end of it, but no such luck. Two days later I was back at the office and I got a call from my sister. Dylan's hand had gotten worse! The discomfort had increased, and there were little red bumps on his hand. I called Madison County Cooperative Extension and posted a request for expertise on the BugGuide forum. Then I did a whole lot of furious Googling.

Among other things, I found this thread on, in which the general consensus was that no one quite knows whether the hairs cause irritation via purely mechanical means, or whether they contain a poison like the urushiol in poison ivy. I think that was where I first saw the term "urticating hairs". It seems that tarantulas and some caterpillars have them, and that the cocoons of those caterpillars retain the hairs!

I called my sister back, conveying to her the general sense I got from skimming a number of sources: an injection may not do anything, so don't let the doctor stick the kid unless he can show you a good reason to do so. The best thing to do in these cases is to apply a topical steroid, which is exactly what the doctor ended up prescribing.

I spoke to my sister a few days later, and Dylan's hand was fine. The strange thing was that Dylan suffered much more than Abby, despite the fact that she got more hairs in her hand than he did. This might be because Dylan had been exposed to something similar before. If you read the thread, you'll learn that the poison in urticating hairs effects people like the urushiol in poison ivy: most folks show no reaction the first time they're exposed, a moderate reaction the second time, and so on.

The irritation comes at least in part from the mechanical properties of the hairs, but it seems likely that the allergic reaction comes from a poison. This morning, nearly a month later, I read an article* about a moth with poisoned urticating hairs that I printed out from JSTOR**. It seemed to show conclusively that, although the initial skin reaction is due to the hairs' mechanical properties, there is a separate allergic reaction caused by poison.

OOH OOH!! I just went to Google the article so that I could see if it was available outside JSTOR, and look what I found: "Investigative Studies of Skin Irritations From Caterpillars"***. Note that you can download the entire .pdf file!

...pauses to read the article...

Interesting! And by "interesting", I mean the fraction that was not so densely technical that I had no clue what the authors were going on about. Here's a summary of the germane bits.
In clinical practice, skin exposure has been usually accidental in the woods or in the forest. In the home, caterpillars or cocoons or moths may get into sheets, pillows, etc. and irritate the skin even after prolonged periods of drying of the arthropod. In one area of Texas, according to Bishopp (8), schools had to close until the larva were under control. Katzenellenbogen (22), has described caterpillar dermatitis as an occupational disease in plantation workers. Ziprkowski, Hofshi and Tahori (23) report 600 cases of caterpillar dermatitis among 3000 soldiers encamped in a pine grove. Occasionally the irritant material may be even dustborne. The airborne factor is more important in the development of the irritation from the hairs of moths. "Yellow tail moth dermatitis" is well known among merchant marine personnel who use ports of Central and South America (24, 25, 26). Also well known among the troops in Korea is the papular dermatitis from the "Yellow Korean Moth".


When setae were immersed in water, saline alcohol, etc., and dried out, although they were very brittle, the insertion of these into the skin did not produce any reactions. It was not possible on microscopic section to see a definite foreign body reaction around the inserted setae. Therefore,the seta itself produced no significant foreign body reactions. However, setae removed freshly from the caterpillar or left by the caterpillar were found to contain the irritant material. This is again additional proof for the basic idea that the setae, themselves, in spite of their barbed appearance serve merely as a tube to carry the irritant substance.


Although the caterpillar has been studied for some time, the exact nature of its irritant principle is still not known definitely. Its polypeptide nature is suspected; 5-hydroxytryptamine may be present. We, however, could not find this important material in our extracts. The poison glands of the caterpillar appear similar to the salivary glands of the other arthropods of dermatologic interest. The skin reactions vary according to the sensitivity of the individual. ...
So, in summary: lots of live or caterpillars or their cocoons or even their remains can cause skin reactions of varying severity. The immediate reactions may be caused to a greater or lesser degree by the mechanical properties of the urticating hairs, but the more serious, and the more long-term, reactions are due to a toxin of unknown nature. So don't go nuzzling any caterpillars.

*The Poison and Poison Apparatus of the White-Marked Tussock Moth Hemerocampa leucostigma Smith and Abbot
Paul M. Gilmer

The Journal of Parasitology, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Dec., 1923), pp. 80-86

**Helping put Grace through the School of Physical Therapy at Columbia has its perks, foremost among which is that I get access, through her, to pretty much any research article I want. JSTOR, an online library of many research periodicals, is the best of the sources.

***Investigative Studies of Skin Irritations From Caterpillars
Leon Goldman, M.D., Faye Sawyer, Ann Levine, John Goldman, Steven Goldman and Joan Spinianger, B.S.
Presented at the Twentieth Annual Meeting of The Society for Investigative Dermatology, Inc., Atlantic City, N. J., June 7, 1959.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Look at the big spider!

For many more pictures from this hike, see the Picasa Web album.

I had promised Dylan that I’d take him on a hike this weekend, so it was the highest-priority item on my list of things to do before I left town on Sunday. I had been wanting to fill in my trail maps with pictures from the Canastota end, but Dylan’s mom had said that he wanted to go to back the quarry. So I engaged in a bit of subversive redirection. I asked him if he remembered the bridge over the stream where we threw sticks in and watched them float downstream, and asked him if he wanted to go back there. Thankfully he was excited about that prospect.

Either Dylan remembered me rubbing alcohol on his legs after last summer’s hike through a section with lots of poison ivy, or his mother reminded him to avoid it, because on the trail through the woods near the cemetery he kept pointing to plants and asking me “Is that poison ivy?” I assured him that I’d tell him if I saw any.

After passing under the tree trunk growing horizontally over the trail near the cemetery, Dylan turned around and watched me make my way under it. Laughing, he pointed out how he didn't even have to duck his head. Oh, kid, it’s not lost on me. The years are flying by so fast that I fear you’ll double in size if I blink once, and lose all interest in what I have to share with you if I blink twice. So believe me, I’m savoring the moment.

Before reaching the path back to the old reservoir we saw the first white trillium of the day, and the first of several cute and colorful birdhouses that someone put up since last fall.

On the path we enjoyed seeing the violets that were popping up everywhere. I pointed out the massive poplars to the left of the trail and, when Dylan asked what the concrete structure was, told him that it used to be a reservoir. That, of course, led to the question “What’s a reservoir?” I love it when kids ask questions. As we mounted the staircase he asked about the notches in the log steps, so I explained about traction.

As soon as we reentered the woods I encountered an excellent photo opportunity: a beetle on a trout lily blossom. Unfortunately my holding still and snapping shots also represented an opportunity for insects to land on me and start sucking my blood.

We continued on through scads of mayapples and white, pink and black trillium. There were also a lot of what I think was false Solomon's seal, but I didn't think to get any shots of it.

I also started to notice a curious plant within the leaf litter: shiny pale stems that seemed to have sprouted from the earth and plunged right back in again. later, after I got home and talked to Grace about it, she indicated that these sprouts are quite common. They must be one of those things that I never noticed before, but I'm sure my eye will catch them from now on.

We descended the staircase amid a slope sprinkled liberally with trillium. As we walked along the path of 4x4s that skirt the stream, Dylan asked why the crosswise slats were there. As I got some more shots of trillium I explained again about the importance of traction on otherwise slippery wood.

Just as we reached the bridge, Dylan said “Look at the big spider” and I said “Where?!” He pointed, and there was a large brownish grey spider clinging to the Canastota Creek sign on the side of the bridge! While Dylan threw sticks into the stream I got a few hundred shots of this beautiful specimen*. See the “boxing gloves”? Those are pedipalps, and the fact that they’re swollen means that it’s a male. Believe it or not, they’re copulatory organs. Check this out.**

At some point while Dylan was playing around on the bridge and gathering sticks to throw in the water, he got a sliver in his finger. He was rather distressed but agreed to let me dig it out. I thought of my knife, but then remembered the teardrop corsage pins I'd put in my camera case as size reference for photographs. Their first use turned out to have nothing to do with photography. I poked and teased at the sliver as Dylan's distress intensified, manifesting itself as a high keening noise. I have to give him credit, though: he endured it with minimal squirming. Eventually I got it out, and the keening subsided.

We headed back through the ravine and up the stairs amid the blanket of gentle green sprinkled liberally with white and pink trillium blossoms. Dylan did a bit of tree-climbing while I snapped shots of violets.

The sun came out and I got some very satisfying shots of shiny young poison ivy. I showed Dylan how the leaves grow in clusters of three, and told him that the waxy shine comes from the oils that rub off on your skin and give you rashes and blisters. I believe I took the opportunity to drill into him the old mnemonic "leaves of three, let it be". I also reminded him that Virginia creeper is shiny but not poisonous, and that older poison ivy leaves are not very shiny but they are still poisonous. The point is that poison ivy is best identified by its clusters of three leaves.

One of the joys of macro photography is getting the pictures home and seeing things that you had no idea were there when you shot them. And in my experience, spider webs are number one in that category of retrospective joys. Those little suckers are spinning their webs everyhwere, and this is never more apparent than when I examine shots that I thought were just of plants and insects. Click on the photo above and look at the top. See the web leading down to the broadleaf toothwort next to the poison ivy?

Likewise, I never saw the webs strung between these two poison ivy plants (look on the left)...

... or the delicate strands on this garlic mustard plant.

*I looked up the spider later and found out that it belongs to the genus Dolomedes, also known as fishing spiders. I had no idea that fishing spiders were so widespread! I believe this one to be a Dolomedes scriptus.

**If you're really interested in the subject of spider mating, find a copy of the following article.

Studies on the Habits of Spiders, Particularly Those of the Mating Period
by Montgomery, T. H., Jr.
Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Vol. 55 (1903), pp. 59- 149
Published by: Academy of Natural Sciences

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Not exactly a Link Trail hike, but we can dream...

For many more pictures, see the Picasaweb album for this hike.

Grace and I met Kathy, Kathy, Mary, Dawn, Sigi and Horst at the Canastota thruway exit at 9:00 as scheduled. Our caravan made its way through Rome and north toward Pixley Falls. We parked at the southernmost trailhead, piled into two cars, and proceeded to our starting point: the Boonville Nice N' Easy.

We were lucky to have a sunny, cool day. We walked past a beautiful mural painted on the wall of an old building, and over the footbridge. From there it was a simple matter of walking southward along the path on the eastern bank. I enjoyed chatting with Dawn about travel and wildflowers.

Before long I fell far behind. You probably won't be too surprised to hear the cause: a picturesque patch of Cladonia fungus. I think it was Cladonia pyxidata but it could be any of a number of similar-looking species on this list.

I caught up with the group while they were pausing at an old piece of machinery that was presumably put there to control the flow between the main canal and the connecting stream.

We moved on, crossing Route 46 and pausing to view the lock just beyond...

... and to admire the work a beaver had done on a tree across the trail from the canal...

...and the pussy willows glowing in the spring summer sun.

Over the next few miles we saw several locks, one of which had a fairly new-looking footbridge crossing it.

Once again, I fell behind as I lingered on an irresistible photo op: a community of red-topped fungus on a post. These were also Cladonia, but a different species: my best guess is Cladonia didyma, but it could have been Cladonia magyarica.

At one point I got to talk to Mary about the work that she and other have done to make the Link Trail a reality. It took years of work just to get the State Parks Commission to talk to them, let alone allow them to build the trail. But after more than ten years of work, the trail between Cazenovia and Canastota was completed. Then, immediately after that was finished last summer, New York State allowed horse traffic on the trail, ignoring the misgivings of those who made it. It's no wonder that, as Mary said, the folks who worked so hard on the trail are "feeling ill-used".

I think that the Link Trail is a gem. I feel lucky to have such a beautiful, secluded trail so close to my old stomping grounds, and I'm glad to be able to contribute to it. I thought of all this as I walked with Mary, and as she pointed to the bluffs off to the left. She's working on a way to extend the Link Trail northward to connect with the one we were walking. That's an exciting prospect.

These old structures look like buttresses, but what they used to buttress is anyone's guess.

We left the main trail to have lunch near the falls north of the park. A few of us descended the steep trail to explore the area where the two streams cascade over waterfalls, converge, and flow southward.

Between our lunch spot and Pixley Falls State Park, the grade must steepen, because it seemed like there was an old lock every time I looked. Along with the locks, there were recurring companions of the day...

...such as marsh marigolds...


...and more beaver work.

We reached Pixley Falls and made our way down to the bottom of the falls. I used the timer to get the group shot at the top of this entry. Then we hiked the last two miles or so, which was steeper than the rest.

We got back to the cars parked at the trailhead and shuttled back to Boonville.