Natural History through the Mouth of a Dog

The curious puppy, Bolete. Photo by Jacob Pounds.
The curious puppy, Bolete. Photo by Jacob Pounds.

My dog is a natural explorer, but rather than use a hand lens, or little net, or consult a beautifully illustrated field guide for more information, she prefers to explore via taste buds.  Over the past couple of months I’ve gained many new insights to local flora and fauna through the delightful array of natural items she’s ingested…

Letharia lichen on a tree. Photo by Sarah Burstein.
Letharia lichen on a tree. Photo by Sarah Burstein.

Letharia vulpina(wolf lichen): Letharia vulpina is a beautiful neon yellow/green lichen common in the Klamath-Siskiyous. I started collecting some, along with other species, for a lichen project last quarter. While I thought I had secured my lichen specimens in a dog inaccessible location, I was, of course, wrong. As my dog’s curiosity is endless, she found the lichens and got to it. Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest used Letharia vulpina widely from dyes and medicine to poison arrowheads. The lichen contains a toxin, vulpinic acid, thought to prevent animals from munching on it.  However, when European settlers moved west they used Letharia vulpina to exterminate wild canines. Settlers would mix Letharia vulpina with shards of glass and stuff it into deer carcasses as bait for wolves, foxes and coyotes. The shards of glass would cut the gums of the canines allowing the toxin to be quickly absorbed into bloodstream-a gruesome history for an otherwise likable lichen. To my relief my dog is fine and completely ignores Letharia vulpina in its natural setting.

Black Widow Spider. Photo by Sarah Burstein.
Black Widow Spider. Photo by Sarah Burstein.

Venomous spiders: This fall I taught my dog how to catch and eat houseflies. It’s been an extremely helpful and entertaining skill until she set it to use on a large, shiny black spider. As I bent down to get a closer look at the huge arachnid in a dark, secluded corner of my house, my dog swiftly inhaled it before I could even react. Now my house in Ashland is notorious for hosting black widow spiders (Latrodectus hesperus) and I observed several females with egg sacs over the summer. Females are black, shiny and huge, and usually readily identified by a characteristic red hourglass on their abdomen, though this may also be faint or a small dot. Most importantly, female black widows contain highly potent venom. However, black widow spiders also have a look-alike, the false black widow (Steatoda grossa) which lack the red markings, are also common in this area, and have milder venom than black widows. While I could not be sure if my dog had eaten the more or less venomous spider, the cool thing I learned about venom is that it has to be injected, via fangs in this case, into the prey’s bloodstream (poison, on the other hand, is dangerous upon ingestion). Thus I learned that unless the spider bit my dog on its way down her throat I had no need to worry…fantastic!

While I appreciate my dog’s curiosity for all creatures, I hope her next tasting adventure focuses on edible organisms…



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