Macabre Moths: The Infernal Nocturnals

My girlfriend is terrified of moths.

She hates them; purely, unabashedly, and completely. She despises their habit of gracelessly barreling out of the dark, smashing into anything and everything (including human faces) in a flurry of fluttering wings. She hates the way they persistently ram themselves into outdoor lights,  which oh-so conveniently tend to be right above her head just outside of the front door, cutting her off from the frustratingly close safety of her house. She loathes the angry drumming sound they make when they clumsily bat their wings against whatever wall or window they are crawling across. She shivers at the mention of their wings, which she describes as “dusty” (the powdery coating is actually made up of very tiny scales that cover the wing; butterflies have these as well). I’ve watched her spot a particularly massive, beastly, mothy bastard spread out sinisterly underneath a neighbor’s outside window sill, and immediately swing her path past it into a wide berth, eyes cautiously locked on the insect threat. She does not like them here or there. She does not like them anywhere. My girlfriend does not like the moth. She does not like them, David Lee Roth.

Because of her undeniably real, demonstrably intense dislike of moths, she was not exactly appreciative of the fact that the last week of July (July 19th through July 27th) was National Moth Week (or of the fact that I’m writing this blog post at all, frankly). For those of you that are unfamiliar, National Moth Week, started in 2011, is a global citizen science effort wherein groups of those inclined (called “moth-ers”, but I like to call them “moth-heads”) set out into the night equipped with lights, a white sheet, a bait mixture made of something like rotten fruit, molasses, or beer (preferably not the good shit; stick to domestic swill like Bud or Coors), and perhaps a camera for recording purposes…all of this to observe and categorize whatever moths they find attracted to their lights or bait, and to potentially contribute their findings to a multitude of databases. In this bit of crowdsourcing of data collection, we are able to know a bit more about the distribution of moth species (and for many species, where they turn up in the world is not well-known), and their general abundance over time, which is important to keep track of, considering that moths are good early indicators of decline in an ecosystem’s ecological health. Another major focus of National Moth Week is to bring awareness to moths, which are oftentimes regarded as boring, drab nuisances instead of the diverse, often colorful, interesting animals that they are. NMW also provides an opportunity to get groups of school age children together to not just learn about moths and the natural world that surrounds where they live, but to take part in a globally held citizen science project, hopefully inspiring some of them to take interest in the biological sciences in a more permanent sense.

Truthfully, moths are far more interesting than we give them credit for. They are diverse in form, size, coloration, and behavior. They are unfortunately pegged as dull creatures, which, at their best, are annoying, and at their worst, a pest that destroys clothes and crops. There’s a single thread runs through their popular characterization; one that paints moths as fundamentally benign, like a house fly, or a slug…something to put up with, and nothing to get too excited about; the “white bread” of the insect world. But, while it’s important to remember that moths are interesting by being incredibly important members of their ecological communities, as insatiable, leaf-obliterating larvae, as pollinators of flowering plants, or as nutrition for everything from birds to bats…there are a number of species that solidly destroy the notion that moths are innocuous at the acutely individual level. Some species are downright threatening, blatantly ignoring the memo about how moths are “supposed” to be the awkward, dirty, night shift butterflies of the world and nothing more disconcerting. These species, twisted, creepy, grotesque, and malicious even by arthropod standards, make it difficult for me or anyone else to dismiss my girlfriend’s mottephobia (the fear of moths) as being unfounded.

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Eucalyptus regnans, Tallest Tree in the South

I like really tall trees.

I suppose the possession of this adoration of our planet’s living, heaven-raking spires comes as a kind of birthright. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, an area not only richly coated with swaths of the densest temperate rainforests in the world, but also the tallest forests in the world. I came of age spending a great deal of time hiking and navigating forests largely consisting of several tree species that are among the world’s tallest. Coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) are all found in the lush coastal forests of Oregon and far Northern California where I spent many long, summer days of my youth; each of them generally regarded as being within the top five tallest tree species on the planet, based on the consistency and frequency of superlatively monstrous individuals within each. Even the “smaller” trees in the region seem to reach uniformly towering heights. Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) can top out at 200 feet (61 m) or more above the soft, spongy soil of the dark, coastal woods of Washington and Oregon. Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), a very common sight in the Pacific Coast Ranges, can easily grow to some 250 feet (76 m) at its droopy crown. The bottom levels of the canopy in a Pacific Northwestern old-growth rainforest can potentially be no less than 150 feet (46 m) high, which is a value not often matched in any other forested region on Earth.

A shaggier version of myself standing with the Quinault Lake Redcedar, the largest western redcedar in the world, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in June 2011 (Photo credit: Werner G. Buehler)

It’s no wonder that growing up immersed in this place has left me with a love for these great trees; old-growth forests full of venerable, enormous trees are incomparably majestic places. The sense of perspective and scale that these trees provide is invariably humbling. It’s difficult not to walk alongside them in a kind of hushed reverence, as if you were traversing the floor of an ancient and solemn temple or cathedral, one crafted from humongous, gnarled pillars of wood and moss, rounded with smoothed with deep time and dark silence. The temperate rainforest springs to life in intense bursts of emerald from wherever these trees have embedded their water-ravenous feet, with lithe lances of ferns and the ghostly baubles of root-associating mushrooms erupting wherever soil space is available. These dampest and darkest of woods, blanketed from the sun a football field’s length upwards, have been described as primordial, as a place of senescence and decay, but I think this is a misplaced conceptualization. The sites where the greatest of these trees grow is positively choked with life; life that clings to and parasitizes other life, life that reaches achingly skywards in even the weakest, most diluted sunbeam to touch down on the forest floor. In my mind, these are places of as much birth and flourishing as they are museums.

This aesthetically spell-binding quality, mixed with these forests’ complex ecology and somewhat unique, insular propensity to harbor endemic species…creatures found nowhere else in the world…is what persistently attracts me back to them time and time again (and also inspires me to write about themmultiple times…because I’m a little insufferable).

It is these types of places, misty, verdant groves of titanic conifers, that come to the mind of most when they envision the world’s tallest trees…granted they call the Northern Hemisphere home. It’s somewhat widely known that California’s coast redwoods are the world’s tallest species, and across the North American continent the sheer size of Pacific Northwest forest trees is no secret…especially when compared against the far more “compact” deciduous trees that are common on the Eastern Seaboard. But a very close contender for the title of the most gravity-taunting plant in the world comes from a location not often associated with impenetrable forests. One of the tallest organisms on Earth is an altogether different kind of plant than the behemoth redwoods, and it hails from the opposite side of the globe from the dewy haunts of Cascadia…a place far more associated with rust-colored, alien deserts, blinding heat, and a faunal assemblage that constitutes the world’s largest bucket of shorts-soiling “hell fucking no.”

I’m of course talking about Australia.

Yes, Australia is a place of extremes…where the venom flows like water, the coral reefs are supersized, and summer turns the landmass into a not-so-metaphoric broiling pan of unending solar-powered punishment  (one that keeps getting hotter). From a biological perspective, Australia is a continent perpetually locked in rebellious teenager mode, deviating from the rest of the world’s biota and letting its freak flag fly proudly for millions of years in a parade of pouches, flightless birds, weird plants, fangs, spikes, and scales. It is therefore quite fitting that one of the tallest trees in the world, the only one in the top five that is not a conifer, in pure contrarian style, is Australia’s Eucalyptus regnans…the “mountain ash” or “swamp gum.”

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Boxfish: Little Fish, Big Toxins

The boxfish.

Most of the time, I use this blog to blather on and on ceaselessly about all the things about life on this planet I find inescapably fascinating. While all of my exposition on killer fungi, badass birds, weird plants, or whatever obscure, bizarre, horrific, extinct monstrosity wandered into my search history that week is charming (obviously) and fun and all, I don’t often indulge in not only talking about the things that I think need to be shared, but things that are also very directly related to my scientific, academic interests. But, today I shall pander to myself and the relatively narrow realm that constitutes my research interests in the hope that you, dear reader, can push through the voluminous, insatiable outwards expansion of my own ego and acknowledge that my currently proposed study organism for my PhD research, the proud, doughty boxfish…is pretty goshdarned fucking cool.

While I plan on investigating certain nuances about the genetics and evolution of this special group of fishes, the topic of this post isn’t on the subtleties of things like gene flow between populations and speciation, but instead on an incredible, noxious, chemical adaptation that is unique to the boxfish.

But first…what exactly is a boxfish? Boxfish are small fish (between about 5 and 18 inches long, but most are at the low end of that range) that frequent the shallow areas of the warmer parts of the world’s oceans, like coral reefs and seagrass beds. They spend their lives passively pruning algae and small invertebrates like crustaceans, worms, and sponges off rocks and coral with their tiny, delicate mouths. They, as a group, are united in having a body made conspicuously rigid with hexagonal, bony plates fused together to form a hard, yet light-weight shell that encircles their interior, “real” skeletal framework. This shell (which has recently been used as bionic inspiration for automobile design) often has modestly rounded corners, and makes the animal distinctly rectangular in overall shape…hence the “boxfish” name (many species are also referred to as “trunkfish,” and there a some species with preposterously unintimidating horns called “cowfish“). This is an animal that is too hip not to be square.

So, this full-body shell results in the boxfish having a skeleton that essentially looks like a decapitated skull. Similarly to a skull, there are precious few holes in the cage of bone, and the formidable armor only opens up for the eyes, puckered mouth, fins, and tail to peek out into the water. When desiccated corpses of boxfish wash up on beaches, their remains resemble the forgotten, bleached craniums of ill-fated livestock out of a stereotypical, “harsh” cartoon desert.

Photo taken shortly before a tumbleweed rolled into the frame.

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Angry Birds, Part 2: Sinister Songbirds

While it is relatively easy to think about massive, belligerent, hook-jawed, feathered monstrosities like the giant petrel, skua, and lammergeier as being kin to the long-extinct therapod dinosaurs, creatures solidly employed in the “flesh-rending-death-beast” profession, perhaps a little harder to grasp is the notion that commonplace little tweety birds have the capacity to be pint-size brutes. But there are certainly some shining star examples that I’ll outline here.

When I refer to “tweety birds”, I mean birds of the order Passeriformes, which are known as the “songbirds.” Robins, sparrows, meadowlarks, finches, orioles, crows, swallows, wrens….everything from Big Bird to Woodstock….Red Robin to the Arizona Cardinals…all of them are passeriform birds. They are members of by far the most diverse order of birds, and with more than 5,000 species, they are among the most speciose of any vertebrate order. They are distinguished from the other groups of birds by, generally speaking, their exquisite control of the syrinx (a vocal organ that is analogous to our own larynx) to generate elaborate bird songs. They are also notable for being a group of animals that has their evolutionary roots placed in a part of the world that is far more frequently noted for having endemic creatures that do not ever leave; Australia and New Guinea. It’s thought that these little guys first broke off from the rest of the flock roughly 50 to 60 million years ago in this arm of the old southern continent of Gondwana (which was isolated then just as it is today) and somehow exploded onto the world stage, rapidly diversifying and eventually finding themselves in all imaginable locations and habitats.

And it is in Australia that the first entry on this list makes its home.

Johnny Two-tone up there (the one who apparently shares an eye-color with Darth Maul) goes by the name of “Australian magpie” (Cracticus tibicen, if you’re nasty), and it’s easy to see why. The black-and-white ensemble (often referred to as a “pied” coloration) and wedge-shaped beak is dead ringer for the magpie bird that many people from the northern continents are familiar with. However, the two birds are not all that closely related, and the pigmentation pattern is a coincidence of convergent evolution. True magpies are in the crow and jay family (Corvidae) and while they are highly-intelligent and mischievous animals, they aren’t particularly aggressive birds, favoring wiley methods of scavenging and hanging around urban and suburban environments for human food waste. In contrast, the Australian “magpie” is a member of the Artamidae family, which is a group of crow-like birds native to the continent and surrounding islands, and the family is far more closely related to other Australasian, Southeast Asian, and Madagascan birds, like vangas and ioras, than they are to the corvids.

It’s also worth mentioning that the genus to which the Australian magpie belongs, Cracticus, is full of birds collectively known as “butcherbirds.”
So, you know we are off to a good start.

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Angry Birds: Part 1, Barbarism from Above

Birds.

These familiar, feathered, fellow Earthlings are often the subject of much adoration from humans, and most birds that enter our daily lives occupy a place of fondness in our hearts. When we think of birds, we imagine, before essentially anything else, their beauty. They are revered across scores of cultures for their complicated and uplifting songs, a trait that exists as the result of meticulous tuning and retouching by sexual selection. Their wind-blown arias range from the simple, structured trill of the western meadowlark, to the complicated, crystal clear chimes of the white-rumped shama, to whatever the hell this insanity is from the superb lyrebird. Many are also regarded physically beautiful, and are gifted with soft elegance in flight, and their frequently vivid feather pigments make them among the most colorful vertebrates outside of a handful of coral reef fish and perhaps poison dart frogs. We equate grace, tranquility, and majesty with birds of varying flavors. Peace with the dove, might and prowess with hawks and eagles….

…the sensation of receiving a prostate exam from Dr. Cactus Fingers…with the potoo

I mean, shit, in Abrahamic and Zoroastrian faith traditions, we even envision angels, the shimmering middle-men of the Creator, as having bird wings plastered on their backs. Lots of things have wings and fly (bats, flies, beetles, and R. Kelly for example) but no, it was the bird’s weird, fluffy, elongated arms that were selected to be associated with a supernatural being that, supposedly, is a distilled amalgamation of all things right in the world.

We also appreciate some species of birds for their intelligence and affection, as well as their impressive capacity for vocal mimicry (I’m looking at you, parrots and mynahs). Many groups of birds are startlingly clever, and corvids (the family to which crows, ravens, rooks, and jays belong) are by-and-large tool-using, highly social, unnervingly observant braniacs that exhibit complex puzzle-solving abilities that make your “whip smart” border collie look like an insipid, drooling dipshit, and are more akin to a ruthless contingent of droogs than to tweety birds.

When we aren’t putting their image on national flags, making our clothing out of their feathers, or pasting them on random knick knacks, we are eating them. Birds are a common source of protein the world over, and here in the States, we appreciate poultry so damned much, that we’ve invented a way to shove as many species of fowl as possible up each other’s asses in order to make a delightful Russian nesting doll of bird flesh. We love the taste of birds so much that we’ve managed to slaughter many species permanently into the past tense. Passenger pigeons used to blacken the skies of North America until European immigrants came along and gave them the good ol’ ‘buffalo treatment’ and straight up blasted them out of their volant swarms with as much pause and contemplation as we give the flipping of a light switch. Humans hunted the flightless red rail of Mauritius to extinction by capitalizing on the birds’ affinity for red-colored objects by pulling out red cloths to lure the poor animals in close…and then bludgeoning them into shrieking oblivion with large sticks.

So, we historically have had sort of a “love/love-to-death” relationship with feathered fauna. It is then, perhaps, not surprising that birds, despite all their charm, can also be somewhat of a nuisance…as some sort of karmic retaliation, I’m sure. A great deal of this comes from their incredibly badass pedigree. It’s important to remember that birds are dinosaurs. Literally. Not kinda, halfway, tangentially related to dinosaurs. Nowadays, the paleontological evidence strongly suggests they ARE therapod dinosaurs, through and through. It’s not so much that Polly is descended directly from T-Rex, but goddamnit if they aren’t kissin’ cousins (a reality that is unavoidably observable in this experiment that aesthetically transforms a lowly chicken into a sickle-toed raptor with ease). Every innocently chittering and whistling thrush and sparrow outside your window is a representative of the last remaining groups of dinosaurs (a clade of critters known as the Maniraptorans), the only group to emerge out the other side of the mass extinction that marked the end of the Cretaceous.

Even after their bigger, toothier relatives kicked the bucket, birds sort of took up the mantel of filling the “giant, menacing, everything-runs-away-from-me monster” niche. In South America, they reigned for tens of millions of years over their ecosystem in the form of flightless, knife-faced homicidal maniacs the size of Shaquille O’Neal (something I wrote briefly about here). One group, the pelagornids, or ‘pseudo-tooth’ birds, went retro and evolved spiky projections from their beaks that basically functioned like teeth. Up until relatively recently in New Zealand, massive, Tolkienesque eagles hunted even larger flightless birds (moas), and likely plucked off the first colonizing Maori like modern hawks take down field mice.

So, given their evolutionary legacy, perhaps it isn’t so shocking that birds, given the right conditions, can be, well, downright unpleasant. I’m a lover of birds (if not solely for the fact that they are, as far as we can tell, motherfucking dinosaurs are you kidding me), but even I can admit that they can be obnoxiously loud (the relentless cooing of the ubiquitous zebra doves on the Hawaiian island I live on is beginning to be an unwelcome wake up call) and foul tempered. Anyone who has spent any time around roosters or overly “friendly” swans knows this. Even as pets they can reek something awful, and then there’s the whole issue of birds shitting as much as your average Royal Caribbean patron. Birds are notorious for spreading disease to people and other animals, and can be agricultural pests as introduced/alien species. But, I suppose that might not be enough horror to transform your conceptualization of birds into that of enraged, dead-eyed, screeching, spray defecating, reptilian nightmares. Especially if your most negative associations with birds just come from getting caught underneath a pigeon releasing its bowel ballast, or from a frustrating bird and pipe-themed app game, which shall go unnamed…

“Up! Up, you stupid piece of shit!”

We know that birds easily have the capacity for bouts of aggression, towards each other, towards other birds, towards their prey, and towards humans. A certain proportion of it is simply overtly aggressive mating; there’s a good chance that whatever “language” mating vocalizations of many species are in, it doesn’t have a word for ‘consent.’ An endangered species of parrot from New Zealand, the kakapo, can be sexually aggressive; and by sexually aggressive, I mean it will mount and dry hump the back of a human’s head. Male dabbling ducks are down-to-their-core gang rapists that possess a shudder-inducingly brobdingnagian, thorny, spring-loaded death dick that looks like it slinky-ed its way out of Tim Burton’s most Freudian, repressed nightmares.

The sins of these dinosaurian, deceptively innocent beings are common and diverse. Obviously, birds-of-prey like hawks, falcons, owls, and eagles are the tigers and wolves of the sky, and rain death upon fuzzy, soft-bodied mammals and clueless reptiles the world over. Vultures chase off other birds from carcasses. Cuckoos are brood parasites that pass off the child-rearing chore onto small, ill-equipped songbirds…which inevitably leads to the slow, pathetic malnourishment of every other chick in the parasitized nest. Corvids routinely bully other birds just for shits and giggles. Just recently, a crow and a seagull (basically, the avian equivalents of a pipe-wrench-wielding Mob leg-breaker)  batterfanged the bejesus out of two hapless doves released by the Pope…to, hilariously, symbolize peace.

You might be aware that the cassowary, a flightless bird closely related to emus, native to northern Australia and Papua New Guinea, has a reputation as a violent animal…prone to defending itself against perceived threats with a casual leaping, roundhouse kick, armed with a razor claw-tipped foot (a behavior that has injured many, and resulted in a single recorded death).

But, the face of badassatry and biker gang ethics in birds isn’t as narrow as bitey swans, prank pulling ravens, and the occasional murderous cassowary. Birds take after their deadly, extinct, dinosaur brethren in more ways than you’d expect, and the reverberations of eons past can be picked up in behavioral and physical attributes across a very wide diversity of these marvelous animals.

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Arachnids: Pseudoscorpions

Pseudoscorpions.

It probably does little to assuage the unsavory first impressions one has with the subject of the third group featured in this blog’s arachnid series, the pseudoscorpion, by noting that its name literally means “false scorpion.” Perhaps this is no surprise, given that without the proper context, pseudoscorpions are intimidating both in their name and in their generally “icky” appearance, armed with menacing claws, attached to a body that resembles a lightbulb made out of alligator skin. If nothing else, you’d at least be somewhat justified in being suspicious of them. Looks like a scorpion, has “scorpion” right in the name, but isn’t a real scorpion? Please. Just what is that tailless son of a bitch hiding? Maybe you doubt that there is such an animal, and the photo above simply depicts a normal scorpion, sans its stinging tail, removed by Photoshop. “What kind of rube do you take me for, blogger on the Internet?! I do not take kindly to unprovoked trickery!”, you howl, with language curiously more sophisticated than what is normal for someone so enraged.

The thing is, pseudoscorpions really are a unique group of arachnids distinct from “true scorpions.” They are partitioned off from the rest of the arachnids in their own taxonomic order, the predictably-named Pseudoscorpionida (also called Chelonethida). It is thought that in the Great Arachnid Family Tree, pseudoscorpions represent one of several springy arms forking off from a massive branch known as Dromopoda, which also includes potential sister groups like harvestmen (think daddy longlegs), “actual” scorpions (the nasty, pinchy, venomous kind), and solifugids (the infamous “camel spiders” of Internet renown, the subject of urban legends stemming from U.S. soldiers’ alleged interactions with them during the Iraq War…and a tasty snack for Bear Grylls). There is some disagreement within the scientific community about the Dromopoda division, and whether or not it is a true, monophyletic group (monophyletic meaning that it’s a defined grouping on a tree including a species and all of its descendants; for example, the grouping of “reptiles” excludes mammals and birds, and would exhibit something known as paraphyly…however “amniotes” includes ALL the descendants of the amniote common ancestor (birds, lizards, mammals, snakes, turtles, etc.) and would constitute a legitimate, monophyletic taxon), but even if Dromopoda isn’t a cohesive evolutionary unit, it is still likely that pseudoscorpions, based on a combination of morphological and molecular characters, are closely allied, evolutionarily, with many of those “Dromopodan” orders. So yes, pseudoscorpions are kissing cousins with desert-terrorizing nightmares like scorpions and camel spiders, and those gangly, spider-lookin’ things that collect as corpses in the lonely corners of your garage every summer.

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Electric fishes

Electricity.

It’s hard to imagine modern life without the stuff. It heats, cools, and lights up our homes and businesses, reduces the chaos of transportation, and because it powers technologies that allow for communication across vast geographic areas, it is the lifeblood of the Information Age. Over time, we’ve discovered that the utility of electricity is ludicrously diverse; from keeping food cold enough to prolong preservation, to saving lives through defibrillation of the heart, to being a dick to your friends. The fact that I am currently writing this on a laptop computer, and then disseminating the information in it over the medium of the Internet, is an undeniable consequence of humankind’s harnessing of electrical energy.

If you are inclined to think of the control and use of electrical energy as a human “invention”, then prepare to set your anthropocentrism…and perhaps yarns telling of curious, bespectacled statesmen armed with kites and keys…aside. Humans are far behind the curve, by many millions of years, on this front once the rest of the animal kingdom is considered, because just like with light (which I’ve talked about before), many animals can produce their own electricity.The overwhelming majority of these animals are at least partially aquatic, since water is a far better conductor of electricity than air. Of these gifted organisms, the bulk of them are vertebrates, and in particular, among our finned and gilled friends, the fishes. There are some mammalian exceptions, including monotremes (the platypus and echidna) and perhaps a species of dolphin or two, but by and large, it’s fish that have locked down this electricity thing. Volta, Tesla, and Edison were great and all, but the reality is that animals not too distantly related to the flaky goodness in your Gorton’s fishsticks had them solidly beat by eons, evolving a commanding grasp of the power of electricity right into their bodies.

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Arachnids: Hooded Tickspiders

Hooded tickspiders.

Yes, I can sense the readers of this entry promptly throwing in the towel, giving up on life itself at simply reading the name of such a creature. Let the idea that Mother Nature is a nurturing, caring force be put to bed immediately, for evolution has crafted the cruel curveball that is the hooded tickspider; equipped with all the charm of a blood-gulping, parasitic tick, and the charisma and affability of a spider. Why even bother leaving the house at this point, what with such unholy, Dr. Moreauian amalgamations walking around? What’s next, cobra-tigers? Leech-sharks? Manbearpig?!

While it is certainly anxiety-inducing to contemplate an animal that seemingly exists as two highly-loathed arachnids essentially smushed together, as if done so to be an entry in a competition to generate the most unsavory Doritos Collisions flavor marriage of all time, in reality, this isn’t the case at all. Just as antlions are neither ants or lions, and dragonflies aren’t dragons, and aren’t really ‘flies’ either, the hooded tickspider represents a unique breed of creature, distinct from both ticks and spiders. Hooded tickspiders belong to a small order of arachnids; Ricinulei. There are about sixty species worldwide, making Ricinulei currently the least speciose order of arachnids, but more species are discovered as the years go by.

If you are breathing a sigh of relief as horrific imagery of web-weaving blood-suckers with no other mission than to patiently wait for you underneath the lip of your toilet seat peacefully leaves you, don’t get ahead of yourself. While hooded tickspiders are no threat to people (for a number of reasons related to their anatomy and extreme cryptic nature), they definitely provide enough innate, unnerving creepiness to make up for it.

Given the miraculous chance that you would encounter one of the few dozen species on Earth in the wild (which would inevitably involve you rooting around in the dirt and leaf litter for weeks in West Africa or the tropical Americas…because those are the only places they are found…and infrequently, at best), the hooded tickspider would probably yield more disappointment than colon-emptying terror. Truthfully, they aren’t much to look at if you aren’t familiar with what to look for. You won’t likely find anything even rivaling the size of the nail on your pinky finger, and they have all the brash coloration of a burlap sack. A captured, tiny, soil-caked hooded tickspider, curled into a defensive, ball shape, would be virtually indistinguishable from your common garden spider to the untrained, non-arachnologist eye.

However, if you were to take a closer look, you would quickly find that the pathetic, trembling critter in your hand appears to be missing something relatively important.
Like a head.

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Sea Spiders

Sea spiders.

I can already hear the exasperated groans coming from the readership of this entry. Sea spiders? Seriously? Why, arachnophobes the world over sigh, are spiders not content to just stay where they belong; many miles away from any potential interaction with my relatively exposed, swimming body? Need they go out of their way to ruin my summer vacation at the beach too? Why do there have to be marine versions of our creepy, spindly-legged friends, especially when we already have sea snakes, saltwater crocodiles, and what are the equivalent of massive “sea wolves” patrolling the briny depths? Perhaps, given the unsettling, lanky body shape of the sea spider, reminiscent of the daddy longlegs clustered in the dark, dusty recesses of our garages, it provides little comfort to say that these animals are not what their common name suggests.

In the same way that “sea cows” are not actually cattle equipped with flippers, and “sea wasps” aren’t really our delightfully sting-happy, land-lubbing acquaintances finding a new home beneath the waves (a nightmarish scenario if there ever was one), sea “spiders” are not simply spiders with water-proof webs and an appetite for calamari. They are something altogether different, belonging the taxonomic class Pycnogonida (meaning “thick knees”, perhaps referring to the shape of the joints in their segmented legs, or a cruel high school nickname for the group). This class is currently allied within the arthropod group known as Chelicerata, which does include arachnids; but, these “sea spiders” are, as previously mentioned, not arachnids themselves. However, even this classification may not provide enough recognition of the pycnogonid’s unique pedigree. There have been some recent studies (from both molecular genetics and evolutionary development angles) that suggest that sea spiders are not nested alongside arachnids at all, but instead are a part of a much older offshoot of the arthropod line…and are potentially the only surviving, highly-derived representatives of some of the first groups of arthropods to evolve (perhaps more closely related to enigmatic, extinct animals from more than half a billion years ago like Anomalocaris). If this is the case, then the pycnogonid lineage is effectively among the oldest animal groups on the planet.

Yes, no matter which classification assignment is correct, these critters occupy a unique branch on the great tree of life, and once someone takes a look at these pycnogonids up close, it becomes abundantly clear that these animals definitely deserve severely distinct classification, and have a tangibly alien quality to them. Seriously, pycnogonids are about as weird as it gets.

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Arachnids: Amblypygids

Arachnids.

Yes, arachnids; our eight-legged “friends” that cling to the shadowy, forgotten corners of our homes, under the damp seal of a rock, to the harsh, hot crust of the desert, and to their feathery webs, crafted overnight in our gardens. Arachnids, as a group, are not at all unfamiliar to us humans, and while, overall, the relationship between ourselves and these ubiquitous invertebrates is a bit complex, by and large in Western culture, arachnids are feared and reviled. The most familiar groups of arachnids, spiders, scorpions, ticks, and mites, have earned reputations as some of the most terror-inducing, retch-provoking, and spine-shuddering animals we encounter in our day-to-day lives. We cringe at the thought of ticks embedded in our skin, face first, bodies inflating into pulsating balloons of blood. We attempt to ignore the unsettling fact that millions of microscopic mites graze on our dead skin cells, both separated from our bodies and still attached. We regard scorpions, prehistoric beasts made of plates, claws, stingers, and venom, as symbolic of the uninhabitable desert wilderness.

And then, of course, there are the oh-so common spiders, creatures who receive reactions from humans ranging from praise for their beautiful, radial web architecture, to mild annoyance when encountering a surprise face and mouthful of this same web on a forest trail, to revulsion and a swift, life-ending blow with a shoe or newspaper (turning the hapless critter into a drab smear of entrails), to blinding, full-on arachnophobic panic. These last group of arachnids, in particular, are the animal kingdom’s ‘black sheep’ in our culture, becoming a fixture in our conceptualization of the spooky atmosphere of Halloween; curiously, along with bats, spiders are among the few living, non-fictional entities we set alongside the stereotypical ghoulish folklore characters like zombies, skeletons, witches, and sundry other monsters. Apparently, we consider spiders among the creepiest, darkest, and most unnerving of all living things.Those that fear spiders, and creepy-crawly arachnids in general, cite these creatures’ long, spindly limbs, soul-less eyes, hairy bodies, venomous fangs, fast movements, and a tendency to inhabit abandoned, abyssal areas where we are already at unease, as some the reasoning behind their prejudice. This instinctual aversion is strong enough, and prevalent enough, to inspire scores of films and literature where spiders are featured as agents of terror. Seriously. There are plenty. Of examples. Our overwhelmingly negative view of spiders, especially, obscures some of their talents, many of which are immensely useful to humans. These include the production of a silk that is tougher than Kevlar (which has instigated research into super-strong materials), and an inarguably critical ecological role that keeps populations of their prey items (insects) in check. Spiders, like most arachnids, in the immortal words of Rodney Dangerfield, “get no respect.”

Oh jeez. Are you guys happy now?

In the same way that spiders and other more familiar arachnids are misunderstood and have unrecognized, underappreciated roles in our lives, the very definition and realization of what arachnids, in the broadest sense, actually are typically is met with limited experience and knowledge. For example, most people, if prompted to “name an arachnid” would answer firstly (overwhelmingly so) with ‘spider.’ Some might follow up with ‘scorpion’, or perhaps ticks and mites…pretty much everything with eight legs and without insect-like antennae that comes to mind. However, the diversity of arachnids extends far beyond the web-bound orb weaver bobbing in the breeze in your front yard’s hedges, or the chigger causing lovely, itchy welts to form on your skin. While these groups are the most speciose, and most common accompaniment to our daily lives (good or bad), there are entire taxonomic orders of arachnids that go quite completely, and miserably, ignored.

This entry is to serve as the first in a series of explorations into the less-loved (or, perhaps, less-persecuted, simply out of unfamiliarity) arachnids.

But first, perhaps it is helpful to start with the following question: what is an arachnid, exactly?

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