Life unfolds at the Gum Pond Exhibit

Published 6:53 pm Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “herding cats”? For some reason this humorous phrase crossed my mind last week as we leading a group of fifteen children along our North Savanna Trail on a mission to explore our Gum Pond Exhibit. The new exhibit is nestled in the woods at the end of a delightfully curvy path.

The Gum Pond Exhibit seemed like the perfect destination for a walk this past week. Although the Pitcher Plant Bog is currently stunning with its riot of summer wildflowers, on a sunny day it can ripe with heat and humidity. On our way to the pond, we passed through the shady woodland of the Arboretum’s Arrival Journey and walked for a bit along a sunny trail. The following question was posed by a camper, “Why is it so hot here?”

But without that brief taste of sun, we wouldn’t have enjoyed the dramatic drop in temperature quite as fully once we entered the woodland surrounding the pond. Gone was our focus on the heat, replaced with the wonder stirred by our winding approach to the new wetland. This area now teems with new plant and animal life.

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Within minutes of our arrival on the wide pond overlook, fifteen sets of eyes locked on something of keen interest to each child. Delicate sundews glistened, miniscule carnivorous rosettes dotted with ruby dewdrops, waving their large flowers from spindly wands. Tiny frogs hopped along the pond edges, some with tails still trailing behind. Spikes of club moss (Lycopodium) gave the appearance of bizarre, fuzzy reindeer horns that had sprouted along the trails, a sight apparently never before encountered by the campers.

What amazing discoveries were made in the woods that day! The club moss prompted tales of its spores being a source of flash powder, which is used for stage magic. You can see an entertaining video by Bill Nye the Science Guy on YouTube demonstrating the “fine dust explosion” when igniting Lycopodium powder. Think of the Old West photographers in black and white movies who directed unsmiling subjects to “hold steady” while their likenesses were captured.

Several spider molts were collected near the pond, including one of a fishing spider. Camp volunteer Breanna Lyle, who is studying entomology at Mississippi State University in Starkville, held the group riveted while she describing how spiders need to shed, or molt, their old exoskeleton in order to increase in size. Her twin sister Deanna is studying horticulture at MSU. Both sisters delighted the children this week with their interest in all things outdoors. One of Deanna’s interests is poisonous plants, and in particular, the great stories throughout history that revolve around them. She told us about the “poison garden” behind the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine in Starkville, a display garden of plants that are poisonous to pets.

Because Breanna’s specialty is spiders, the children enjoyed collecting them for her to identify and to tell stories about. Her list numbered well over a dozen species, including the wolf spider, a species fun to hunt at night here at the Arboretum. During Bugfest in September, a well-aimed flashlight will pick up the shine from this spider’s large front eyes, a mesmerizing sight the first time you see it.

Several fishing spiders were also spotted around the gum pond. These spiders can grow large enough to catch and eat small fish. Search for a photo of this spider on the Internet. Then, imagine me as a small and terrified child tubing down a Smoky Mountain river, straying too close for comfort next to rocks where these huge spiders hung in wait for unsuspecting prey.

Another common but fascinating spider found on our journey was the spiny-backed orb weaver. You can imagine what this spider might look like from their name, and while they may look menacing they are not harmful. The one that Breanna collected near Cypress Cove was quite friendly. This spider creates beautiful symmetrical webs and both the black and white ones and the yellow and white variety are often seen here in the summer and fall.

For “show and tell,” Breanna brought her desert blond tarantula, Minka, a very docile New World spider, to the delight of the campers. I’m not sure it was to the equal delight of their parents, who will now have to field their child’s request now for a pet tarantula.

Another spider seen at the Arboretum is the golden orb weaver. Research this spider on the Internet to see examples of exquisite clothing and tapestries that have been created from its golden silk, collected by “milking” the spiders (compressing their abdomens). The invention of this device is an interesting story, so explore this further when you find yourself up late one night with nothing to do. Or watch a web video of a spider – such as a tarantula – molting.

We have had a record number of volunteers assisting with our summer nature camp. We simply could not have done the fantastic job that we did without these generous sets of helping hands. The children seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed learning more about our local wildlife and plants. The mark of a successful camp is to overhear children who are lamenting, “Only two days left”, and, “Now we only have one more day…” But, at times this past week, it was hard to tell who was enjoying their time here the most, the adults or the children!

For more information on the Arboretum, please call the office at 601-799-2311, or see our program schedule on our website at Social media links can be found on our homepage. We are open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59).

For further exploration:

Why do spiders’, and other animals’ eyes glow in the beam of a flashlight? Why do fireflies, some of the fungi, and insect larvae glow in the dark? What is this called?