I found some squatters in my crawl space today. Freeloading vagrants who were living in my house without me knowing. How could they have moved in without me knowing? Usually squatters squat in a house that’s empty but these spineless vandals have no respect for property or privacy.
It’s a good thing most of them were dead.
Snails, centipedes, millipedes, and rolly pollies had moved in to my crawl space when there was a small pool of water. What must have seemed like a lake to them has now dried up leaving their equally water-free bodies to litter the desert of my crawl space. Only one large snail seemed to survive.
The most surprising find was the large claw of a male fiddler crab. I don’t know if I should be excited or nervous that the crabs are trying to move in. Have my experiments with the crabs gone too far? What do the crabs want? They’ve conquered the ocean now the crabs are trying to take over my house? Sure, I’m a scientist, but I was never trained for this. The crabs are a crafty bunch.
A younger and more reckless me used to say ‘garden snake’ when I meant ‘garter snake’. What’s the different between a garden snake and a garter snake? There is no recognized group of snakes called garden snakes. A garden snake is any ole snake you might find in your garden – be it a corn snake, a milk snake or a deadly black mambe. A garter snake is a group of snakes belonging to the genus Thamnophis. How did my older, more considerate self remember the difference? I thought of a snake wearing a garter belt to hold up its stockings. Well, stocking. The most common garter snake is the eastern garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis. It is harmless and only likes to eat frogs, tadpoles, and insects – not people who can’t remember its name.
Here is a garter snake in Williamsburg, Virginia, that surprised me while I was hunting frogs outside of Jamestown Pies while I waited for my pizza to cook (frog hunting is an activity of opportunity).
And here is one from Newbury, Massachusetts, that emerge just as spring was happening. It was still cool and he let me lay inches from him and take his picture. I made sure to get his good side.
A wonderful video taken in a salt marsh ditch in Newbury, Mass. The fish is who wants to make sure the camera gets his good side is the mummichog, Fundulus heteroclitus. For scale, the snails are the size of a BB from a BB gun. In all my time in the salt marsh, I’ve never seen so many! I guess I’ve got to stick my head underwater more often. Thanks to DeRosa Environmental for bringing the video to my attention.
But not just any ole worm. A marine worm, which is the more ostentatious and terrifying version of the plain, simple earthworm. Some marine worms inspire beauty, others terror with their fangs, tentacles, and H.R. Geiger inspired faces! Find your inspiration below (these are all real worms).
Here’s a riddle: If you lived in your backpack with only your head and your feet sticking out, would you poop in your backpack?
Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. You’d move your anus and poop out of your shoulder, of course. Just like the snail did.
All mollusks – the squids, the octopi, the clams, the snails – can trace their family tree back to a common ancestor. We hypothesize that this ancestor looks like HAM (Hypothetical Ancestral Mollusca). This mollusk was snail-like with shallow conical shell. The wide opening of the shell allowed its alimentary system (the tube that starts with your mouth and ends at your other end) to be distributed how it is in many animals: mouth at one end and anus at the other.
Then Nature grabbed the shell of the snail and twisted it into an ice cream with a harder-than-candy shell (a process called torsion). As a result the opening through which everything happened (eating, pooping, crawling) got smaller. As the shell twisted, so too did its alimentary canal. The anus still needed to exit out the same, now smaller opening (because you don’t want to poop in your own backpack). The arrangement made the anus and mouth next door neighbors. If you’re looking for the anus of snail, look behind his head or just over his ‘shoulder’.
Maybe you’re having a hard time visualizing all of this. Or maybe you’re stuck in your backpack still trying to solve the riddle. Either way, I have more visual aids courtesy of an amber snail I found doing his business right there along the side of the road in Maine (such shameless little molluscs). You’ll notice his business is large proportional to the size of his body (far larger, proportionally, than anything any of your friends have bragged about).
Now that we know where the anus is, what about the snail’s breathing hole? Land snails have primitive lungs and breathe through a pneumatophore, his ‘nostril’. Real estate is tight so the snail’s ‘nostril’ is near the anus. In the picture below, the hole just above the, ahem, business, is his pneumatophore (follow the arrow). And no, I doubt he held his breath the entire time. He’s outdoors. It’s well-ventilated.
Amber snails have a relatively large aperture (opening) to their shells so they don’t evacuate on their heads, but many land snails do.
Middle-school jokes and nicknames begin in…no, onto more science!.
How about the penis! Behind the head. Vagina? Often next to the penis. Where else would you put it? Yeah, many snails, including the amber snail, are hermaphrodites. I used ‘he’ in the post because that’s the trouble with pronouns.
If you’re interested in your own alimentary canal and it’s adventures, then you should read GULP by Mary Roach. It’s a rootin’ tootin’ good time!
I reached into the water and pulled out a garlands of seaweed and snail eggs. Looking like small Chinese lanterns, scores of mudsnail egg cases lined the surface of the seaweed. The egglayer? The mudsnail Nassarius obsoletus (formerly Ilyanassa obsoleta). These snails live in soft-bottoms but have to lay their eggs on ‘hard’ surfaces. The very few rocks are often overgrazed by crabs and other snails, so a leafy stem or brown algae makes a fine place to leave a molluskan brood.
I long hunted a spot to read and found it behind a bush where sat a splintered picnic table that was missing the part defined it as a table – its top. Its benches were still serviceable and supported my substantial 140 lb weight. Artifacts on the ground – an Atlas condom wrapper (its unfurled content laying in the water next to a rock so that it looked like the rock was sticking out its sickly pallid tongue), a Baja Blast Mountain Dew can, leg grabbing fishing line, and some brand of electronic cigarette – let me know that I was not the only other person to find this the perfect spot for whatever was in mind. My mind was on reading and quiet.
Repeatedly the water splashes on the edge of the lily pads. I assume the splash is from a pickerel – a small green torpedo that lurks under lily-pad leaves perpetually looking skyward for a snack. A fisherman who casts a floating lure near the edge of lily pads may be rewarded with the excitement of catching such a torpedo. With no pole, I fish with my eyes. A dragonfly lands on a small piece of floating plant. A second later the still water erupts. As the water stills the dragonfly is hovering; with his mouth empty, the pickerel likely returns to his hideout with a huff.
The dance of the dragonfly and the pickerel goes twice more. Does the dragonfly tease the pickerel? An aerial predator taunting the water-bound one, like an older brother who offers the ball to his little brother only to jerk it away as he reaches for it? I don’t think this is a sibling rivalry between an invertebrate and vertebrate because the dragonfly appears to be a female. Each time she lands she curls her tail into the water; the act of egg-laying. Dragonfly larvae are aquatic. She has picked this piece of plant as her nest – a nest that risks her life, but in her odonatal instinct of maternity she has decided that this nest is best for her young. Maybe she picked this spot precisely because the pickerel is there, knowing that any fish or insects that may want a snack of dragonfly eggs may first find themselves a snack. In this way the pickerel should thank the dragonfly for luring supper closer to his jaws. But the pickerel is short-sighted and only knows the hunger of now and not tomorrow.
A fisherman arrives. He is not a sit-and-wait predator like the pickerel. I tell him about the previous drama and he casts out his lure – an orange plastic abstraction of a frog. He drags it in front of the lily pads but the water doesn’t erupt. Maybe the muscles of the pickerel are taut, ready to strike and while it may flinch a millimeter when it sees the dancing orange legs of what looks like a frog the pickerel halts when it sees it is clearly not a frog. The pickerel possibly annoyed – and confused – by a frog that swims in front of him that then jumps out of the water when it’s near land only to return to the front of the pickerel less than a minute later. Maybe it’s more than one orange frog and there is now a freeway of headless, orange frogs with strangely dancing legs in front of his lily pad. The pickerel is likely annoyed to be focused on a dinner that’s not dinner instead of keeping watch for dinner that is dinner.
The fisherman yanks his line out of the water finally. The limp legs of the headless, orange frog dangle. “Ah, there’s nothing here,” he says.
Minutes later I hear a splash. I look up and see a dragonfly hovering above the ripples.
The tip of my rod tickled the air. I only looked up from book four of the Game of Thrones series. Whatever was on the other end of the line either wasn’t big enough or wasn’t on the hook yet. I shifted my feet in the hot sand until I found the coolness of the thermocline’s underbelly.
The rodtip danced and the rod shifted. I picked up the rod and waited until I felt a good hard tug and jerked back. It wasn’t a big fight, but it was good to feel my line taut. Silver and pinkish scales shimmered as I landed the fish. As soon as I pulled it from the water it croaked at me furiously, like a politician frog giving a heated stump speech.
But frogs are not the only aquatic critter to croak. On the end of my line was the aptly named Atlantic croaker, Micropogonias undulatus. The croaker and it’s relatives in the Scianidae family (aka the ‘drum’ family for obvious reasons. Includes red drum, black drum, spot, etc). A croaker croaks by flexing abdominal muscles against its air bladder, like drawing a tight rubber band across a balloon. We don’t really know why the croaker croaks, but it’s likely for communication. Interestingly, it is typically the males of the drum family to let other males they are around but also to serenade lady drums. As a result, drums typically only drum during mating season. But both sexes of croakers croak and do so all year round. Maybe they have a lot more to say than, “Hey, baby.”
Croakers and the drums are not the only fish to croak. I remember catching catfish in the ponds of Arkansas when I was a kid and listening to their Gwork, Gwork of their croaks.
As I pulled the hook from his mouth, he croaked feverishly – his own piscine version of cussing. I would too if you jammed a meathook through my cheek just as I took a bite of steak and then drug me outside by my cheek. I let him go back into the murky water so he could go tell his croaker buddies about what had just happened. But apparently some didn’t listen as I caught 7 more.