Category Archives: Animals

Who’s hiding in your mud?

Can you see me?

Tiny U pugilator (1)

 

 

 

 

How about now?

Tiny U pugilator (2)

 

Now?

Tiny U pugilator (3)

I am a juvenile – and adorable and humble – sand fiddler crab, Uca pugilator. I am tiny and an easy snack, so I look like a grain of sand to keep me out of the belly of a bird. 

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‘Dagger-faced goons’ murder and eat victim in broad daylight

Williamsburg, Virginia

“A gruesome scene this morning has left a leafy neighborhood in Williamsburg, Virginia, in shock after a newly emerged cicada was murdered, dismembered and eaten in broad daylight.

According to eyewitness accounts, a female Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) pulled the victim off the trunk of a tree, threw it on the ground and stabbed it repeatedly with its needle-like bill. Once the victim was dead, another wren, a male, helped the alleged killer ripped the victim to pieces and began eating it. Later, a female cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), Virginia’s state bird with eyes set on savagery, joined in to help devour the victim.

“It was brutal, just brutal” said a grasshopper who witnessed the attack. “The poor guy emerged right under the bird feeder. That’s just bad luck. That’s like a gazelle being born in a lion’s den.” After pausing to look over his shoulder, the grasshopper said, “But better him than me.”

We were able to obtain an exclusive interview and confession with the alleged killer, who was taking a dirt bath under a bush. “I was going to eat bird seed from the feeder. Then I saw [the cicada] on the tree. It was the size of my head! So much meat. And delicious. Now I don’t have to spend the rest of the day foraging for insects and seeds. I can focus, instead, on removing mites from my feathers.”

Asked if she had any regrets, she said, “Only that after all my work to kill the cicada, that cardinal bullied her way in. But she only got part of the thorax and the wings. I don’t like the wings anyway. Too stringy.”  

The murder happened in the front yard of a Williamsburg resident who saw it happen outside his window. “I saw the wren pecking the ground, then saw the cicada try to fly away. She grabbed it and flipped it on its back. It was gruesome. I didn’t watch the whole thing because I didn’t want to overcook my eggs. That would have ruined my day.”

The victim was a periodical cicada (Magicicada sp.). These insects remain underground as pale grubs for 13 or 17 years then emerge from the ground as winged-adults to find a mate. They are sometimes called “17-year locusts”, which is a misnomer. Locusts are grasshoppers and cicadas are more closely related to shield bugs and assassin bugs.

The grasshopper who witnessed the murder gave perspective on the victim’s life cycle, “Nothing like waiting 17 years in an underground bunker only to be killed and eaten by dagger-faced goons when you come out.”

 

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P.S. This makes my 100th post. Thank you for following! Don’t forget to tell your friends and neighbors. But not the creepy neighbors.

 

 

 

Quest of the Tick

I sit at the end of a blade of grass under a blistering 98-degree sun. I wait. The humidity is thick. I wait. The breeze is dead. I wait.

I wait for you.

I wait all day, still as a stone. When I feel your breath, your heat or your footsteps, I throw open my front legs like a spring-loaded trap the snaps open instead of closed when triggered. I wave my legs around eager to grab you. The hooks at the ends of my legs make sure to snag your hair, your clothes, your skin.

I am the tick, and I have waited for you all day.

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What our eight-legged friend* describes above is the questing behavior of ticks. They sit at the edge of leaves or grass patiently waiting for you or your dog or a deer or a raccoon to walk by. I admire their patience and their clever behavior.

I took the photos below in my backyard after looking for black dots at the ends of grass blades and seed heads. The tick is the Lonestar tick, Amblyomma americanum. Once you know what to look for, it’s amazing, and terrifying, how many ticks you can find riding on the tips of grass blades. Even scarier is the number of ticks you can’t see.

 

*Ticks are arachnids, like spiders and scorpions and mites. They are not insects.

Wild snails of the flowerbed

Thanksgiving Day,
Williamsburg, Virginia

It’s 3:00 P.M. on Thanksgiving Day and I’m bored and slightly cold. We will eat at 4:30 P.M. I’m not sure what to do with myself so I’m sitting behind the couch using the box for the cat’s scratching pad as a mouse pad and writing a blog while my mother reads and my mother-in-law vacuums.

What to write about? Snails. A good go-to for me.

Two days ago when it was 60 F, I laid on the red-brick patio and watch a snail that I had dislodged from a planter that I moved. It had been hiding under there, probably to overwinter. But I brought it out into the open. It was nice just to watch the snail without any sort of agenda. So often in my science I’m making observations so I can scribble them down, analyze them, write a grant, get rejected by the grant, write another grant and finally give up and move on to another subject. Just like a football coach who points out the errors in the defensive line of a team he doesn’t coach, I can’t help but analyze Nature instead of just enjoying the game. My head instead asks, What species is it? How old was it? How big? How many are in the yard? What predators does it fear? But I let myself relax. I watched and I enjoyed. I watched the slide of its stomach-foot over the electric green moss that cushions the red bricks. While I didn’t take any data, I did take pictures.

And what will this snail eat for it’s Thanksgiving meal? It’s 43 F here today so it may be too cold for it to eat, but if it does feast, it will be on rotting leaves, mushrooms, and if it finds its way to my compost pile – the carcass of a Halloween pumpkin. Some meals don’t require basting. 

By the way, if you haven’t read the beautiful book The Sound of Wild Snail Eating you should. It’s a wonderfully written book about a bed-ridden woman who befriends a woodland snail.

Happy gobbling. Backyard snail (6)

Backyard snail (5)

Backyard snail (2)

Backyard snail (1)

And the spider saltated down beside her

Williamsburg, Virginia

Instead of keeping an eye on my 2-year-old son* at the playground, I watched a jumping spider walk on and jump between a pair of abandoned sandals. It was as though the spider was testing the springiness of insoles as potential launchpads for catching flies. I tried to take his picture, but the spider was shy and launched himself into the grass.

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Not the jumping spider I saw, but another found in Virginia. Jumping spiders are harmless to humans. They were also voted Most Adorable in their class (it’s their big eyes). Photo copyright Kim Hosen and courtesy of http://www.pwconserve.org/wildlife/insects/spiders/palejumpingspider.html

Jumping spiders are in the family Salticidae (sal-tis-uh-day), which sounds like a rejected day of the week. The name refers to the spider’s leaping skills. The movements of animals that jump are described as saltatorial (animals that dig – like moles – are fossorial). The word ‘saltate’ come from the Latin, saltus, which means to leap or dance. Do you saltate up and down with joy when you find one more M&M in the bag when thought they were all gone? I do, too. The saltatorial grasshopper, frog, kangaroo and jumping spider all jump and dance in the grass, the pond, the Australian outback, and on the playground sandal.

What happened to the woman who was in the sandals? Maybe a spider sat down beside her and she jumped clean out of them. And given that many of us saltate when we see a spider – regardless if it jumps or not – there may be a spider writing a blog somewhere about the ‘jumping human’ and its saltations.

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The spider sandals


*My son is fairly careful and let’s off an alarm that brings judging parents from miles around when he’s anywhere close to danger. He also still requires a hand to hold when he saltates (no M&M’s required).

Saltmarsh amphipod (Orchestia grillus) on a Spartina stem. Brown is the normal color morph, compare to the orange, parasitized morphs. Plum Island Estuary, Massachusetts

Amphipods: the new menacing marine menace?

This week a young man in Australia was attacked by something while he was swimming in the ocean. His legs were bloodied and covered with hundreds of small bites. At the hospital, doctors were baffled about what bloodied the young man’s legs. The dad – who rocks in this story – went back into the water with a bloody steak and collected the small, flea-like animals. They were identified as amphipods, which are small crustaceans. If Sharknado has taught us anything, a movie about flesh-eating amphipods can’t be far now. Let’s see what that movie trailer might look like.

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A young, beautiful mother sits on the beach and watches her charming son, who she can’t believe is growing up so fast, swim in the ocean. Gulls wheel overhead and waves roll gently. The sky blue.

Boy: Mom, watch me swim.
Mom: Okay.

[cue the Jaws-theme music rip-off]

Cello: Duh-nuh

 Boy: You watching?
Mom: Yes, dear.

Cello: Duh-nuh

 Cello: Duh-nuh

 [cue that voiceover guy]

 That Voiceover Guy: Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water again.

 Cello: Duh-nuh, Duh-nuh, Duh-nuh, etc.

 The boy screams and grabs his leg. His mother runs into the waves and pulls him out. His legs are bleeding but there’s nothing on them. A handsome and rugged marine biologist who looks just a little bit dangerous but you know you’d feel safe in his arms, runs over.

Mom: What did this!?

 Ruggedly handsome marine biologist: They’re amphipods.

 Mom: Oh my go…wait, what the heck are amphipods?

 Director: CUT!!

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What the heck are amphipods? They are small crustaceans related to shrimp and crabs and lobsters. Typically, they aren’t larger than your thumbnail. If you’ve picked up seaweed on a beach, you’ve probably seen them. They are the small animals flipping and tumbling around like fleas. Those are amphipods. Sometimes called ‘sand fleas.’ Or ‘beach fleas.’ Or ‘beach hoppers.’ Or ‘sea fleas.’ The ‘flea’ name refers to the shape of their body (pressed from the sides) and the fact that they can flip around using their tails.

The media has used the term ‘sea lice’, but that really refers to an isopod, which can be parasitic on fish and look like the rolly-pollies (aka doodle-bugs) you find under logs.

Are amphipods the new marine menace? A pack of ravenous, flesh-eating beasts that roam the oceans looking for prey? Well, no. They do eat flesh, but typically not live flesh. We marine biologists (both the ruggedly handsome and other variety) don’t think of amphipods as predators but as scavengers that eat dead plants and animals. They’re more like tiny vultures swimming through the sea looking for something dead to stick their heads into rather than wild dogs looking to tear apart a baby deer.

I study amphipods in the salt marshes of Massachusetts and Louisiana (you can see pictures of them below). Just like on the beach, if you pick up seaweed in the marsh, hundreds of little crustaceans will flip and spring until they can hide in the grass. Not much of a terror. In terms of diet, these amphipods are more interested in a rotting veggie burger than a hunk of a marine-biologist.   

Then why did they attack the young man’s legs in Australia? We’re not sure. Amphipods can bite humans – sometimes beach runners will have a bite or two – but they have rarely caused such damage. The best guess is that the amphipods were in a feeding frenzy and the young man’s legs happened to get in the way.

While I’ve been playful with this story, as a father, I too would have been worried. As a marine biologist, I am curious. It shows that we still have a lot to learn. The next time I pick up an amphipod I will check to see if it’s wearing a handkerchief and holding a knife and fork.  

 

 

P.S. Now that we have flesh-eating amphipods in the news, soon I will write about zombie amphipods. Stay tuned. Duh-nuh…

P.P.S. If you enjoyed this article then please post it on Facebook, Twitter, or your favorite social media. And don’t forget to follow me. 

Why did the fiddler cross the road?

Williamsburg, Virginia

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (28) - Copy
I was riding my bike in my neighborhood when I saw a fiddler crab skitter across the blacktop. I stopped immediately to catch it because when it comes to marine life, I’m like a dog who can’t help but chase the rabbit. Plus, I don’t often see marine life skittering across blacktop in the middle of the day in June. I caught it. It was a red-jointed fiddler crab (this post reminds me that I need to write a post about fiddler crabs, but that’s for later).

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (11) - Copy
A male red-jointed fiddler crab, Uca minax

Fiddler crabs live in burrows in beaches, salt marshes, and mangroves, not roads. But it’s not unusual to see fiddlers on roads that have been built right through the place where they live. In parts of coastal Virginia where the roads cut through the marsh, you can see herds of fiddler crabs roaming the road like cattle. The question is, why do fiddler crabs cross the road? One reason is that the road used to be a marsh where fiddlers grazed. Now they may cross the road for better pastures. Build a road through my house and I’m liable to wander onto it on my way to the kitchen for an avocado. But mind your honking in my house, I have a 2-year-old trying to sleep and an anxious cat who needs therapy. 

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (24)
A lady fiddler has eggs underneath her (up to 10’s of thousands) 

To-get-to-the-otherside-for-a-snack is a fine answer for why fiddlers cross the road when the road is in their backyard. But the road I found the crab on today was at least 100 feet uphill from the marsh with a forest in between. I found seven wandering fiddlers total. What drives a fiddler to hike through the woods and then onto the highway? Fiddler crabs eat algae and little bits of dead plant found in the soil. I don’t think blacktop or frontyards or woodlands offer much forage for a fiddler.

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (17)
A male fiddler crab challenges a baby pine tree. Males. Yeash. Am I right ladies?

My working hypothesis is that because we’ve had so much rain that it made the water too fresh for these marine crabs. But that hypothesis was shot down when I found a fine fiddler party in the marsh. My best guess is that because the temperatures were low and the road and forest were damp, they were simply brave crabs exploring new lands. There have been a lot of For Sale signs around. Now might be a good time to move.

 

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (16)
Male fiddler crab doing his best, “I’m on Saturn” impression

In truth, I don’t really know why these crabs traveled so far. As I sit here daydreaming in rain, the why of it leaves my mind, like the crabs, to wander.

P.S. If you enjoy these posts, and of course you do, then please sign up for email updates! I don’t post often. Too much time chasing crabs.

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (10)

Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (13)
Without thumbs, hitchhiking crab can’t get a ride
Fiddler crossing, Uca minax, red-jointed fiddler (15)
Soccer crab has got the sideways moves for goalie, but he just can’t find the net.