Mammals of Alabama, critters to avoid

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The long-awaited book, “Mammals of Alabama,” has been published.

Authored by Dr. Troy Best, a professor of zoology at Auburn University, and the late professor Dr. Julian Dusi, the 495-page guide is truly a masterpiece. All mammalian species known to occur in the state are depicted in color, as are those that have been extirpated and others, such as the Florida panther, that have reportedly been seen but for which documentation is lacking. The book contains range maps, habitat preferences, food habits and a wealth of other pertinent information on each of the species. Don C. Wilson, Curator Emeritus of the National Museum of Natural History, says, “This book will find a wide audience of professional workers in natural history, as well as interested amateurs.”

The book was published by The University of Alabama Press in cooperation with the Alabama Wildlife Federation. It can be obtained from the U.A.P. for $34.95 and is available to members of the A.W.F. for a discounted price of $24.50. Orders can be placed via 800-621-2736. Members of the A.W.F. must provide a “special discount code,” available on the federation’s website.

A population explosion of banded tussock moths is currently underway in and around these parts. During the past several weeks, I’ve seen at least 20 or more of the larvae of this species on my premises. Many call these larvae “stinging worms” because if one comes into contact with a person’s skin, a painful stinging sensation will occur.

The inch-long larvae are covered with brownish hairs and have elongate black and white protrusions on their front and rear ends. They are among several stinging, or urticarial, caterpillars that occur in our area. Most of the stingers have been on my deck, which is overhung with white oak branches. I’ve seen several on my carport, including two on the hood of my pickup. God only knows how they got there!

Another urticarial caterpillar is the larva of the IO moth. It’s greenish with elongate light stripes on the sides. Old timers who hand-picked cotton are familiar with these “stingers” because among their preferred foods are cotton leaves. Internet sites depict various urticarial caterpillars, including the aforementioned.

In the past, I have commented on various tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease. Whether the disease occurs in Alabama has been debated by authorities. A knowledgable Auburn parasitologist, Dr. Chris Sunderman, insists that it does and bases her conclusion on indisputable evidence. I trust her judgement.

In eastern states the primary vector is the blacklegged deer tick. Diagnosis is based on symptoms, which include fever, headache, fatigue and a characteristic skin rash and also the likelihood that the person may have been bitten by a tick. If left untreated, the disease can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system. Early intervention employing antibiotics can cure most cases completely, but in later stages, response to treatment can be slower (sources, Communicable Disease Center and Mayo Clinic).

A mosquito-borne viral disease, Chikungunys, has fairly recently appeared in the U.S. Originating in Africa, it is now widespread in the Caribbean. In the continental U.S., 138 cases in 23 states have been reported, with Florida reporting the majority. No cases have yet been reported in Alabama, but several have occurred in Mississippi. Patients diagnosed with the disease have been immigrants and those who have visited the Caribbean, Pacific islands or Asia.

Chikungunys is transmitted from person to person by bites of one of two species of the genus Aedes, aegypti and albopictus, both of which occur in Alabama. A. aegypti (the yellow fever mosquito) and A. albopictus (the Asian tiger mosquito) breed in standing water, often contained in receptacles around urban and suburban households. They are active mostly in early morning and early evening, and both have black-and-white striped legs. Dengue is another viral disease transmitted by the same mosquitos, and in the continental U.S., except for an outbreak in South Texas, patients acquired the disease elsewhere by travelers and immigrants.

With the increase in immigrants from tropical America, it is likely that the incidence of both Chikungunys and dengue will likewise increase. Meanwhile, take steps to avoid being bitten by mosquitos with black-and-white striped legs!

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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