Capulin Volcano

 

2012 Colorado Vacation 013

Originally posted July 2, 2012

I recently returned from a vacation whereby ten members of my extended family traveled in three separate vehicles from the North Texas area to the Colorado Springs area. Fortunately for us, we managed to get in a full four days of sightseeing before the terrible fires encroached upon the town of Manitou Springs. We hope this beautiful town and surrounding area recovers soon. Colorado is a favorite vacation spot for many” flat land” Texans as evidenced by the large amount of Lone Star State license plates you’ll see along the route from Texas through New Mexico and into southern Colorado. Most Texans, among them my nieces and nephews, will tell you there isn’t much to see or do on a road trip between Dallas and Raton, save the spectacular Palo Duro Canyon located just south of Amarillo. I’ll reserve sharing that experience for another post. Today, I’d like to tell you a little about a nice surprise we came upon in northwestern New Mexico – Capulin Volcano National Monument.

Capulin Volcano, a classic cinder cone dormant volcano, is located in the midst of the Raton-Clayton volcanic field. There are several other recognizable volcanoes in the area, as well as some that you don’t realize are small volcanic domes until you take a second or third glance. Capulin Volcano, as you can see by the pic I snapped above, is quite perfect in shape. The volcano is visible for at least 20 miles prior to arriving at its base.

I would describe the terrain along the Raton-Clayton path as a rocky, moderately high desert type. As we drove through mostly flat country dotted with sporadic peaks and domes, we saw an abundance of mule deer and antelope. Various types of blooming cacti decorated the otherwise sparse landscapes in yellows and pinks.

2012 Colorado Vacation 018

Besides the magnificence of viewing it from the base, driving to its peak, and hiking around its rim, I found it fascinating that multitudes of ladybugs live on the mountain. We had stopped at the information center enroute to the top of the volcano and received a pamphlet and a map of the site. While there, a park attendant told us we happened to be visiting during the active ladybug season. (She also told us four types of hummingbirds routinely visit the site as well.) I was a tad intrigued and made a mental note to look for ladybugs at the peak – thinking I might see a few here and there and if I was lucky, one might land on me. Boy, did I ever underestimate what “ladybug season” meant!

As we hiked the paved pathway along the rim of the volcano, my family and I admired the many labeled shrubs and wildflowers. There is actually a sumac-related shrub in the area that has the common name “skunkbush.”  If you brush against it or crush a leaf with your shoe it will emit the faint aroma of a skunk. Another interesting fact about this shrub is it is not completely destroyed in forest fires – above ground it is certainly burned, but below ground it will survive and re-emerge good as new the following season. What caught my eye in particular was the bright orange-red berries among the skunkbush’s leaves (see below).

skunkbush-sumac-berries_medium

Skunkbush (Rhus trilobata)

So, as we walked along the rim of the volcano I seemed to notice quite a few skunkbushes along the way – except they weren’t skunkbushes after all. They were, instead, shrubs that were inundated with orangish-red ladybugs! Thousands and thousands of them! Below is a picture I took on June 16, 2012 of ladybugs at the base of a shrub on the rim of Capulin Volcano. Comparing the photos, I am sure you can see why I did not notice the ones in this second photo were ladybugs at first glance.

ladybugs

Ladybugs at the base of a shrub on Capulin Volcano

Having never seen so many ladybugs in one place, I knew I would want to learn more about the attraction of the bugs to that particular area. Was it the region? The elevation? The lack of predators? The vegetation? The rocks? Perhaps the fact Capulin is a volcano is of significance?

up close ladybugs

Close-up of Ladybugs on Capulin Volcano

This is what I’ve learned: Scientists (Entomologists) simply do not know the specific attraction of Capulin Volcano to the ladybugs. But they do know the particular type of ladybug that resides there is called the Convergent Lady Beetle (Hippodamia convergens) and is one that migrates. The beetles arrive on the volcano via wind currents throughout the summer season and stay to overwinter there. In very early spring (February) the ladybugs catch southernly winds to warmer areas rife with aphid infestations, where they gorge, mate and lay eggs. When the larvae become adults, they hitch a wind current back with their parents to Capulin Volcano to prepare for hibernation and to continue the cycle. Some scientists believe the rocks of Capulin Volcano serve as landmarks or landing beacons for the beetles as they are carried in the wind. Capulin is not the only peak that hosts the Convergent Lady Beetle over winter. Some beetles miss their landing at Capulin and are carried further northwest to settle among a few other isolated, mid-level peaks located in southern Colorado.

One day I hope we uncover the mystery of the ladybug attraction to Capulin Volcano. It truly fascinates me. Until then, it should interest those of us that purchase or attempt to keep beneficial ladybugs in our gardens as natural predators, to know they will eventually leave our summer gardens to gather at their winter mountain resorts. Considering the dedication to their annual roundtrip journeys, I indeed have a much greater appreciation for the precious time ladybugs do chose to visit in my yard in North Texas.

Until next time,

Cindy

References:
http://www.nps.gov/cavo/naturescience/insects.htm
http://www.gazette.com/articles/colorado-60818-heading-hills.html
http://www.cimarronnm.com/PDF/NM_Volcanoes.pdf

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