Spooky Scary Sea Spiders

In the spirit of Halloween, let’s take a look at a creepy but otherwise harmless ocean arthropod: the sea spider.

As was the case with the grandaddy longlegs (aka “harvestmen”) we discussed a couple years ago, despite their spidery looks, sea spiders are not actually spiders. They do belong to the subphylum Chelicerata like spiders and horseshoe crabs, but while land spiders are part of the class Arachnida, sea spiders are in the class Pycnogonida.

As chelicerates, both arachnids and pycnogonids bear fangs called chelicerae. However, apart from physical resemblance, that’s basically where the similarities between land and sea spiders end. Sea spiders don’t spin webs, they don’t poison their prey, and they don’t breathe.

Well, okay, I guess they do breathe, but they don’t have lungs, gills, or anything resembling a respiratory system. Because sea spiders have such a dramatically large surface area to body size ratio, it was once thought that they could absorb oxygen directly across their exoskeleton via diffusion. However, we now know that they take in water and subsequently oxygen through pores on their legs.

A deep-sea sea spider posted on the NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research Flickr page. The little arms bent backward are its ovigers, and the slightly pink appendage is its proboscis

There’s actually a lot of wacky stuff going on with pycnogonid legs. For one, they’re incredibly large compared to the size of the sea spider’s body. In fact, sea spiders’ torsos are so tiny that they can’t fit all their organs inside, so their digestive and reproductive systems extend into their legs. Additionally, male sea spiders sport a fancy pair of legs called “ovigers” that they use for grooming themselves and carrying the female’s eggs around until the baby sea spiders hatch.

Sea spiders live throughout the world’s oceans and can grow especially large near the poles and at great depths. However, they tend to stay pretty small in the tropics. As adults, they mostly feed on sponges using their large proboscis. Most species also eat cnidarians like hydroids and anemones, and some consume seaweed, or other invertebrates. As larvae, sea spiders are often parasites of sponges and cnidarians.

Sea spiders can be hard to find due to their light coloration and small size in areas where you might actually come across them. However, if you do cross paths with a pycnogonid at the beach, don’t worry – sea spiders are completely harmless to humans.

Happy October everyone! Have a fantastically spooky Halloween, and remember – sea spiders won’t hurt you, land spiders are our friends, and the spider “skeletons” at Target are anatomically incorrect.

The Shocking Pink Dragon Millipede

If you live in North Carolina, I really hope you’re going to BugFest next Saturday (September 17). For those of you who’ve never heard of it, BugFest is a free once-a-year event at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh designed to get people excited and educated about all kinds of arthropods – in other words, it’s one of my favorite days of the year. You can chat with entomologists, make bug crafts, hold some bugs, eat some bugs… it’s a blast. I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned it on this blog before.

Anyway, in honor of this year’s BugFest focusing on the subphylum Myriapoda (aka millipedes and centipedes), today’s post is all about shocking pink dragon millipedes.

I didn’t make that one up, that’s actually their legit common name.

A shocking pink dragon millipede captured by CHULABUSH KHATANCHAROEN on Flickr

Unsurprisingly, shocking pink dragon millipedes (which I will call pink dragons for short) belong to the dragon millipede family, Paradoxosomatidae. With that pink exoskeleton and those cool back spikes, these millipedes definitely look very dragon-y. Despite their fearsome appearance, however, pink dragons are only about 3 centimeters long, which is large for their genus but pretty small in terms of dragons. Or so I’d assume. I don’t really have that much experience with dragons.

A relatively new species, pink dragons were first discovered in a cave in Thailand in 2007 and were named for those dragon-scale-like spikes on their backs. Like most millipedes, pink dragons curl up cinnamon-roll style to protect themselves from predators, and that hot pink exterior warns such predators of the millipede’s secret chemical weaponry: like most millipedes, pink dragons secrete cyanide from glands in their armpits, which has the effect of poisoning anything that tries to eat them and making the hands of people who handle them smell like almonds. So I guess if you enjoy smelling like almonds, you can spritz yourself for free by petting a millipede. Just don’t lick your hands for a while afterward.

Because these millipedes live on the other side of the world, I wouldn’t expect to see any pink dragons crawling around at BugFest. However, there will be lots of other awesome millipedes and centipedes in Raleigh for you to learn about next weekend, plus plenty of fun activities like the “Arthropod Olympics” and Madagascar hissing cockroach races!

That’s right, we live in a world where you can make a day or an afternoon out of learning about bugs and cheering on your favorite cockroach like it’s about to win the Kentucky Derby. What a time to be alive.

All That Glitters… Might Be Goldbugs

A gorgeous goldbug by Katja Schulz on Flickr

After so many ArthroBlogger posts over the years, you may be wondering how I decide which arthropods to write about. When I first started this blog, I mostly wrote about arthropods that I’d seen in my backyard or had had personal interactions with. I also write about fascinating arthropods that I hear about at school, a definite perk of being a biology major.

And sometimes, as in the case of this month’s featured arthropod, I just stumble across some really fascinating or adorable creature on the internet and think, “wow, people need to know this thing exists.”

Also known as “goldbugs” (or “sequins with legs,” as I like to call them), golden tortoise beetles resemble golden ladybugs and are found throughout much of the eastern United States. Unlike the omnivorous ladybugs, golden tortoise beetles are members of the Chrysomelidae or “leaf beetle” family and are often found munching on morning glory and sweet potato plants. Fortunately, they don’t often occur in large enough numbers to be considered pests.

As the largest sweet potato producer in the US, North Carolina should be flooded with goldbugs, but I’ve yet to ever see one in person. That may or may not have anything to do with the fact that I really don’t like sweet potatoes. Now, however, I feel compelled to wander through some sweet potato fields until I find one of these shimmering cuties.

Yet another appropriately named insect, golden tortoise beetles get the “tortoise” part of their name from their translucent elytron, a hard cover most beetles have that protects their head and wings. In the case of the golden tortoise beetle, the elytron is large enough for the beetle to tuck its legs and head under for extra protection, much like how a tortoise would tuck its own head and legs into its shell. Goldbugs may have completely translucent elytra or, like the beetle featured above, they might sport black markings for a little extra pizzazz.

The “golden” part of this beetle’s name is easy enough to figure out, but goldbugs aren’t always gold. The gold color comes from the beetle’s shiny cuticle, but when upset or threatened, the beetle contracts its cuticle to produce an orange liquid that temporarily replaces that golden gleam as it dries. In fact, these beetles can turn a variety of colors ranging from yellow to brown or red if they’re stressed or dehydrated. When the beetles are healthy and content, however, I guess you could say they feel… golden! Ha! I’m hilarious.

We could go through some reasons why goldbugs are important for the weeds they eat and the animals that eat them and their intrinsic beauty and whatnot, but I think the best thing about these guys is that they’ve finally given me something to do with all these sweet potatoes lying around. So I’m just gonna end with that. See y’all next month, I’m going goldmining for beetles.

All Aboard the Railroad Worms!

A railroad “worm,” courtesy of Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren on Flickr

Railroad worms are not actually worms. Despite their appearance, they’re not caterpillars, either. Most of them are beetle larvae, but some of the aren’t – we’ll get back to that in a minute.

Also known as “glowworms,” railroad worms are named for the bioluminescent sections on the sides of their bodies look like train car windows when they light up at night. How cute! They’re little arthropod trains; someone needs to make them into transportation for tiny forest dwellers in a fantasy novel or something.

Apart from the “windows,” railroad worms can also make their heads glow red, which is thought to help them see better at night and scare off predators. Both the yellow and red lights are created using luciferin and luciferase, the same molecules and enzymes fireflies use to make their lower abdomens glow.

As cute as their name is, we really ought to call them “railroad larvae,” because most railroad worms are actually larvae of beetles in the Phrixothrix genus of the family Phengodidae. However, female railroad worms never metamorphose into beetles and retain their larval features throughout their lives, so you could run into some Phrixothrix “larvae” that aren’t actually larvae at all! When railroad worm males grow up, however, they trade their glowing windows for a sick pair of feathery antlers, I mean, antennae:

An adult male Phrixothrix beetle, courtesy of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab – all in favor of renaming these dudes “reindeer beetles” say aye!

The best time to find a railroad worm is at night or after a rainstorm when they come out to hunt for food. During the day, these colorful, shimmering insects typically spend their time snoozing in the dirt or hanging out on tree trunks, if you’re searching for railroad worms in a lazier mood.

It can also be easy to mistake railroad worms for colorful millipedes in the daylight. Unlike millipedes, however, railroad worms are insects and only have six legs as compared to a millipede’s hundreds – in fact, they actually eat millipedes! Railroad worms also eat a ton of other garden pests, too, so it’s always a good sign to see one crawling around your tomato plants.

…Why does everyone have tomato plants? Why do we always talk about tomato plants when we talk about home gardens? We never talk about blueberries or squash or cabbage…

Well, all that to say that it’s a good sign when you see railroad worms around your zucchini and boysenberries, too.

Don’t Shake Hands with a Coconut Crab

A coconut crab climbing a tree, courtesy of Olivier Lejade on Flickr

Have you ever seen a naked hermit crab the size of a steering wheel climb up a tree?

No? Well then, like me, you’ve never met a coconut crab.

Coconut crabs belong to the hermit crab superfamily Paguroidea (more specifically, the terrestrial hermit crab family Coenobitidae). Not only are they the largest hermit crab species, but they’re also the largest land-dwelling arthropod on the planet at almost three feet across! However, it takes a long time for coconut crabs to get that big.

Coconut crab larvae start out as plankton, teeny-tiny animals that are carried around by ocean currents. As they grow, the larvae actually start to eat other plankton, and when they’re big enough, they’ll wear abandoned seashells for protection much like the more familiar hermit crabs we know and love. Soon after, or while still in the shell-toting phase, coconut crabs make their way to shore and leave their water-dwelling days behind them, becoming completely terrestrial and unable to swim. So please, if you do see a coconut crab, don’t throw it back in the ocean. It would not appreciate that.

In fact, you really shouldn’t be touching coconut crabs at all, as these giant crustaceans have the strongest grip strength of all pincer-possessing animals. Coconut crabs are capable of clamping their claws with a force over 1500 Newtons – for comparison, a grizzly bear bites with a force of 1410 Newtons.

So, what do coconut crabs use their crazy-strong claws for? Peeling and cracking coconuts, of course!

Coconut crabs are actually a surprisingly well-named arthropod. I started this post preparing to rename them “tree lobsters” or something, but as it turns out, “coconut crab” is pretty hard to top because these guys really do love coconuts. I mean, they really really love coconuts. They love coconuts so much that if they can’t find any on the ground, they’ll climb up trees to get them. I mean, I’ve seen crabs climbing around on docks and whatnot before, but climbing up a whole tree? And cutting a coconut down from it? That’s serious dedication.

A coconut crab’s left claw is its crusher claw and is always bigger than its right claw, which is used for more precise cutting. Thanks to whologwhy on Flickr for the great photo!

Coconuts aren’t the only food on a coconut crab’s menu. They’ll also eat fruits, other crabs, rats and even seabirds. Yeah, giant crabs eating seagulls… that doesn’t sound horrifying at all. In terms of what eats them, coconut crabs are so formidable as adults that their only predators tend to be humans and larger coconut crabs – that, and they live on tropical islands in the Indo-Pacific Ocean lacking in big animals that would dine on massive crustaceans with trash compactors for hands.

Although they are, in fact, edible, there are a couple reasons why you probably would not want to eat a coconut crab. For one, coconut crabs are a vulnerable species due in part to people overhunting them. Additionally, coconut crab meat can be toxic if the crab has been eating poisonous fruits like sea mangoes. Y’all can take that risk if you want, but I’ll be sitting over here eating my popcorn shrimp basket instead, thank you very much.

So, why are coconut crabs worth protecting? Well, for one, coconut crabs are scavengers that will eat basically anything, making them the perfect island clean-up crew. They’re also a great source of food as larvae, feeding various planktivores, and later feed lizards and amphibians as young coconut crabs. Although a risky delicacy, coconut crabs are still definitely a source of food for people, and their stealing habits are pretty amusing.

Yes, coconut crabs are many things… tree-climbers, coconut-connoisseurs, bird-murderers, and also thieves of random stuff like whiskey bottles and flip-flops, earning them the nickname “robber crabs.” Coconut crabs have a pretty good sense of smell as far as crustaceans go, so it is believed that they steal things that smell like potential food items.

The next time you find yourself somewhere in the Indo-Pacific Ocean, perhaps visiting Madagascar or the Cook Islands, maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to cross paths with a coconut crab. And hopefully it won’t steal your shoes or drop a coconut on your head.

How bizarre that we live in a world where we can say stuff like that about hermit crabs.

Top Ten Arthropod Disguises

If you’ve taken any biology or ecology classes, you may have heard of mimicry. Mimicry is when an animal, plant, or other living organism (the mimic) copies the appearance or behavior of another (the model). More often than not, the mimic copies an organism more dangerous than itself to scare away predators. One of my favorite mimics has got to be the mimic octopus, which can change its appearance to resemble a variety of different animals. However, the phylum Arthropoda has some pretty fantastic mimics of its own. In no particular order, these are my top ten favorite arthropod disguises:

Ant-Mimicking Jumping Spiders

An ant-mimicking spider of the species Myrmarachne formicaria captured by spidereyes2020 on Flickr

I love jumping spiders. They dance, they have pretty adorable faces (for spiders), and now they’re dressing up like one of my favorite insects: the ant. Jumping spiders of the genus Myrmarachne are known for mimicking a specific genus or species of ant depending on their species, and their disguises are good enough to fool humans. Not only do the spiders strongly resemble ants in appearance, but they also walk like ants and move their forelegs about like antennae to really sell the act. Since most jumping spider predators don’t eat ants for fear of getting stung, bit, or swarmed by the whole ant colony, pulling off a good performance can be the difference between life and death for these tiny arachnid actors.

Thistledown Velvet Ant

A close-up-and-personal shot of a thistledown velvet ant uploaded to Flickr by the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

This is the second time a velvet ant has made an ArthroBlogger top ten list, and this little wasp also has a double dose of deception going on. Not only do females of this species lack wings and thus resemble ants (they’re actually wasps), but their fluffy setae make them look like pieces of fluff or creosote seeds being blown around by the wind when they walk. This disguise usually deters predators looking for an insect snack, but as a last resort, thistledown velvet ants, er, wasps, can pack a painful punch with their stingers.

Snake-Mimicking Caterpillar

The closet caterpillar I could find to Hemeroplanes triptolemus on Flickr. Thanks to Alison Day for the elephant hawk moth caterpillar!

I couldn’t find a photo of one on Flickr, but this caterpillar is too cool not to include in this list, so please please please look at the snake-mimicking caterpillar here, you will not be disappointed. Hemeroplanes triptolemus is one of the most amazing arthropod mimics around: while preferring to camouflage itself as a twig or leaf, this particular hawk moth caterpillar can also bear a striking resemblance to a viper when it sucks in air through the spiracles near its head region! The caterpillar is actually harmless, but most predators don’t stick around long enough to find out – especially when it pretends to strike at them with its fake snake head!

Curled Dead Leaf Moth

A beautiful Uropyia meticulodina moth by LiCheng Shih on Flickr

This spot almost went to the dead leaf mantis, but the detail of the curled wings made me choose the dead leaf moth. While far from the only leaf-mimicking animal out there (or even the only leaf-mimicking lepidopteran), Uropyia meticulodina takes the mimicry game to a whole other level – those wings aren’t actually curled! If you don’t believe me, take a look at this picture of the moth from above. That’s what I call a work of art. Mind. Blown.

Bumblebee Robber Fly

A bumblebee robber fly by Andrew Weitzel on Flickr

Once again far from the only bee-mimicking insects, robber flies of the genus Laphria have a certain knack for mimicking bumblebees. Unfortunately, the reason behind their acting game is a bit more sinister than most: while a lot of the arthropods on this list use their mimicry to hide from or scare away predators, Laphria robber flies are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They mostly sit and wait around for pollinators like bees and butterflies to come by, who believe the fly is just another flower-drinking buddy. When its prey gets too close, the fly pounces and devours it. These flies are pretty cute, and they eat pesky insects too, but it’s hard to forgive someone who actively betrays sweet little bumblebees.

Orchid Mantis

An orchid mantis by Pavel Kirillov on Flickr

Another beautiful insect mimic, the juvenile orchid mantis resembles a flower both to ambush pollinator prey and hide from predators. Yes, this is very similar behavior to that of the bumblebee robber fly, but at least the mantis is fooling its prey with the false promise of food rather than fake friendship. While native to Southeast Asia and Indonesia, these mantises are also popular pets but are happiest hiding amongst orchids and similar flowers in the rainforest.

Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar

A Giant Swallowtail caterpillar by Letícia Smania Donanzan on Flickr

Some caterpillars have eyespots to look like snakes, some blend in with leaves and branches, and some can do a remarkable impression of bird poo. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if you’re small and squishy, all that matters is keeping yourself from getting eaten. And I’d say this particular disguise is a pretty good tactic.

Atlas Moth

A gorgeous Atlas moth by Rene Mensen on Flickr

Take a look at the wing tips of the Atlas moth. Do they remind you of anything? Perhaps… the head of a cobra? That’s right, I put two lepidopterans mimicking two different kinds of snakes on this list! Why? Because they’re both awesome-looking and exquisitely crafted insects, that’s why! God probably had a lot of fun making the ant and bee mimics, but with these guys, I think He was just showing off.

Ladybug Mimic Fungus Beetle

A fuzzy fungus beetle by giovzaid85 on Flickr

First of all, these guys belong to the family Endomychidae, which makes them “handsome fungus beetles” and I think that name is adorable. Second of all, just look at this cutey! He’s so fluffy, and the ladybug spots make him even cuter! This beetle mimics the coloration of a ladybug to warn predators of its terrible taste.

Stick Insects

A stick insect captured by Sid Mosdell on Flickr

Who better to end this list with than one of the most well-known and beloved mimics out there: the stick insect? These fantastic fellows come in a variety of colors and sizes and are found in forests around the globe, although they prefer to stay near the tropics. Stick insects are pretty great at blending in with the branches of bushes and trees, but if they are spotted by a predator, they can fall to the ground and blend in with the debris on the ground below. If that doesn’t work either, they can drop the act all together and startle foes by showing off their flashy, colorful wings. Although there are definitely some very tiny species, the stick insect Phobaeticus chani holds the record of being the world’s longest insect.

The Beetle that Only Eats Asparagus

A common asparagus beetle by stanze on Flickr

I can’t believe these actually exist. There must be a beetle for every word in the English language.

“Asparagus Beetle” is actually a very logical name for these guys, because they only eat asparagus. I don’t know why that’s so funny to me, but it is. I just… why asparagus? It’s so absurdly specific. Like, imagine an asparagus beetle at an insect dinner party:

Ant: Hey, Earl, have you tasted the honeydew Helga brought? It’s sooo good!

Asparagus Beetle: Nope. Could someone pass the asparagus?

Bee: Dude, that’s all you ever eat! Try this pollen my sister found this morning.

Asparagus Beetle: You know, I’d really rather just eat asparagus. Like, all the asparagus. You guys are good if I take the whole plate, right?

Termite: Come on, there are plenty of other great foods besides asparagus. If you keep an open mind, the world is your dinner plate! (Begins gnawing on the table)

Asparagus Beetle: …Okay, then. Seriously guys, I only eat asparagus. That’s all I need. Just asparagus.

Bee: Haven’t you heard of a balanced diet? How can you only eat one food all the time and nothing else?

Monarch caterpillar: (looks up from its milkweed salad) Eh, I get it.

There are actually two asparagus beetle species: the common asparagus beetle and the spotted asparagus beetle, the latter of whom bears a resemblance to ladybugs. Because asparagus beetles (unsurprisingly) are pests of asparagus crops, anyone hoping to rid them from their garden has to pay close attention to make sure they aren’t accidentally getting rid of ladybugs, which actually eat a lot of pests (including asparagus beetle larvae). Asparagus beetles can become particularly annoying because, unlike most crops, asparagus grows better if it is planted in the same place for a long time rather than rotated out with other plants. This gives the beetles ample time to become a major infestation if you aren’t diligently monitoring your plants, especially because asparagus beetles can go through two to five generations in a single year.

A spotted asparagus beetle by gbohne on Flickr

Adult asparagus beetles lay their eggs on asparagus plants. After about a week, the eggs hatch and the larvae begin feeding on asparagus berries or leaves depending on their species. The larvae develop quickly, eating for a couple weeks before pupating in the soil and emerging as adults only one week later. Then, as you already know, the asparagus beetles return to munching on asparagus. Spotted asparagus beetles, however, are considered the less detrimental pest because they are less common (that explains the “common” asparagus beetle’s name) and have less of an impact on the whole asparagus plant with their larvae only eating the berries. However, spotted asparagus beetles have been known to branch out and eat other foods on occasion, particularly gourds and melons.

Huh. I guess you can get tired of eating the same food all the time after all.

Monarch butterfly: (looks up from sipping flower nectar) Eh, I get it.

Magnificent Mole Crickets

A mole cricket by oliver.dodd on Flickr. Awwwww, just look at his lil’ face!

I have only known about the existence of mole crickets since last spring, when my roommate convinced me and one of our friends to join her on a Plastic Ocean Project cleanup near the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. After picking up some garbage near where we’d received our gear, I was speed walking to catch my friends when I noticed an elongated cricket wriggling around in the dirt. Apparently caring more about a cute insect than getting left behind and lost in the city (I was actually fine, they were like ten yards away in broad daylight), I knelt down and used the Seek app on my phone to identify the little creature. Low and behold, I had stumbled upon my first mole cricket.

Although common on almost every continent, mole crickets are hardly ever seen due to their nocturnal, underground lifestyle. Unfortunately, the burrows and eating habits of invasive mole crickets especially are a pain to agricultural fields and front lawns alike: mole cricket burrows can disrupt the roots of grasses, and the crickets themselves may eat the roots of grasses and other small plants, sometimes dragging the whole plant underground and consuming it. Although obviously considered a pest, mole crickets are relatively docile and are not likely to bite unless you try to grab them.

The forelimbs of a mole cricket bear a striking resemblance to the front paws of, well, moles. These clawed shovels make the mole cricket an excellent digger and also contain the insect’s tympana, or ear drums. Mole crickets can also use their shovel-hands like paddles to swim to shore if they somehow find themselves in a body of water, and the thick layer of setae (arthropod hair) covering their body traps in air and helps to keep them afloat. Some species can even jump from the water using fancy paddle-feet and the water’s surface tension! As if conquering soil and water wasn’t enough, mole crickets can also take to the skies on admittedly clumsy but functional wings for short flights. Is there anything mole crickets can’t do?

Well, besides avoid fluorescent lights at fast-food restaurants and gas stations, I mean. Despite living in the dirt and being nocturnal, mole crickets are for some reason attracted to bright lights. Which means we can add bug zappers to the list of mole cricket predators, I suppose.

Hold on a second – why do those even exist? Apparently people use bug zappers in hopes of killing mosquitoes, but those little pests are attracted to blood and carbon dioxide and, well, humans, not shiny things they can’t bite. To the few of you still using these things, please stop hurting the poor little moths and mole crickets and turn off your electric death boxes.

Thank you. Now, back to mole crickets:

Mole cricket burrows are called galleries when they’re shallow (often making a noticeable bulge in the ground and annoying the mess out of golfers) and tunnels when they extend deeper underground. Female mole crickets also add nurseries called egg chambers to their burrows. When mating season arrives, male mole crickets will widen the entrances to their galleries to act like a speaker before professing their love through song to attract females. Mole crickets make their music by strumming the stridulatory file of one wing across the scraper of the other, much like how one would strum a guitar with a pick.

If it weren’t for the agricultural damage, I’d say mole crickets are just short of perfect. Between their cute little faces and impressive adaptability, I’m kind of surprised that they aren’t more popular. Who cares if they aren’t colorful, mole crickets deserve to be just as well known and beloved as butterflies and ladybugs! Maybe they’re just shy, and that’s why they hide in the dirt all the time where no one can get to know them for the magnificent creatures they are.

Just you wait, folks. As soon as the world gets a little more familiar with mole crickets, they’re gonna knock those snobby butterflies right off their pedestal and become everyone’s new favorite insect.

Icky, Sticky Velvet Worms

The first time I ever saw, let alone heard of velvet worms was in my invertebrate zoology lab last semester. To explain how perplexing that encounter was, you need to understand how this class worked: when I attended lab every Tuesday around noon, I usually had to complete between ten and twelve workstations regarding that week’s invertebrate animal phylum. Each station either consisted of one or several microscopes, about three to twenty shells or jars of preserved organisms, sometimes newspaper articles, live animal(s) and/or dissected animal(s), plus a worksheet with the assignment printed on it.

Due to the bulk of notes I had to take and animals/animal parts I had to draw and label, each station could take anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes or more. This meant that by the time I reached my final station each week, I was hungry, cramping in the hand, cold because that lab was always freakishly chilly, probably calculating how much time I had left before my bus arrived, and definitely not operating at 100% brain capacity.

On November 2, 2021, this was the state in which I knelt on the chair at my last station of the day, peered into the microscope, and immediately wondered if I was hallucinating. Staring back at me from the slide was the caterpillar from the black lagoon. This dude, to be precise:

The velvet worm from my invertebrate zoology lab, as seen through a microscope. Most of the time these guys are red and blue, so I don’t know why this one is green. He was not a living specimen, so that may have had something to do with it.

Velvet worms, as you may have guessed from the antennae and limbs, are not actually worms. Nor are they caterpillars. Nor are they, in fact, arthropods. But, seeing as their phylum Onychophora is part of the Panarthropoda clade with Tardigrada and Arthropoda, I’m going to say that they’re close enough to get featured on this blog. Plus, they’re really wacky and I really want to talk about them, so here goes nothing:

First of all, velvet worms have retractable claws. Seriously! Velvet worms have anywhere between 14 and 43 stubby little legs, and each leg hides a little claw that can be retracted when walking around. These claws are the reason behind the velvet worms’ phylum name, Onychophora, which means “claw-bearers.”

If you’re like me and you’ve never seen one of these funky fellas before, you might live in the Northern Hemisphere. Velvet worms live in South America, Australia, and parts of Africa and Southern Hemisphere islands, but even in their native range they can be tricky to find. Like a lot of arthropods, velvet worms breathe through holes in their cuticle (outer body covering) called spiracles. Unlike most arthropods, however, velvet worms have no way of closing their spiracles, so they must live in warm, damp areas like leaf litter to avoid drying out. If you’re out looking for velvet worms yourself, you’ve got decent odds at finding them under rocks, logs or leaves in the woods.

Notice that white bulge under the velvet worm’s antennae? That’s one of its oral papillae, which the velvet worm uses to spit a glue-like substance at its insect prey. Once the insect is thoroughly covered in spit and rendered immobile, the velvet worm feeds like a spider: it bites open the insect’s exoskeleton and spits digestive fluids inside, then slurps up the resulting bug-soup. Yum. Gross.

A living velvet worm captured by Marshal Hedin on Flickr

Another interesting factoid about velvet worms is that most are ovoviviparous, meaning their eggs hatch inside their bodies, while others lay eggs or birth fully developed young like mammals. One species even reproduces by parthenogenesis, in which females basically give birth to clones of themselves. In terms of their similarities to the Arthropoda phylum, velvet worms must shed their cuticle to grow and can communicate with one another using pheromones, chemical secretions released from the velvet worm’s crural gland.

Although they may spit glue at you and possibly nip you if you bother them, velvet worms aren’t poisonous and pose no threat to humans. Nothing much seems to be threatening them at the moment, either; although negatively impacted by habitat loss and being captured as pets, velvet worms are not endangered and actually have stable population numbers around the globe.

Like a lot of other Americans I know, I am kind of afraid of Australia on account of the wide array of dangerous creatures lurking there. Now, however, the velvet worms have provided me with an incentive to visit. Then again, I can also find them in Chile, New Zealand, and plenty of other hopefully-less-dangerous places… Kudos to you, Australia, but I don’t think I’m ready to join you in surviving killer snakes, spiders, and buff kangaroos just yet. If any of y’all come across a velvet worm, though, send me a pic!

Cleaner Shrimp: Dentists of the Coral Reef

A Pacific Cleaner Shrimp photographed by prilfish on Flickr. Aww, look at his little eyes! Too cute.

If you’ve ever seen a saltwater fish aquarium, chances are there was a bright red shrimp with long, white antennae scurrying around in there, too. That would be a Pacific Cleaner Shrimp, also known as a Scarlet Skunk Cleaner Shrimp for the white stripe running down its back. As their more generic name implies, Pacific Cleaner Shrimp are valuable fish tank occupants for their cleaning prowess, happily eating whatever parasites and dead skin they find on their fish roommates. They’ll even clean inside the fishes’ mouths with their chelipeds (claws) like little arthropod dentists!

In the wild, Pacific Cleaner Shrimp are a common sight in coral reefs. The coral and rocks provide a place to hide from predators, as well as a convenient spot to perch and wait for clients who need their scales and teeth cleaned. This relationship between shrimp and fish is an excellent example of mutualism between species: the shrimp gets to eat, and the fish are cleansed of decay and parasites! Shrimp will even clean fishes’ wounds, which can reduce inflammation and the likelihood of infection. Interestingly, rather than hiding from fish who prey on shrimp, Pacific Cleaner Shrimp will show preference to their predators and clean them more frequently as a way of keeping the peace and saying “please don’t eat me, I’m worth more as your dentist than your lunch!”

Although common in reefs, Pacific Cleaner Shrimp can also be found in small troupes (colonies) by underwater cave entrances about 20 meters deep. Individual shrimp in a troupe tend to keep their distance, but they still get along well with one another and other shrimp species living in the same area.

Pacific Cleaner Shrimp are simultaneous hermaphrodites, which means individual shrimp are both male and female at the same time. Therefore, all Pacific Cleaner Shrimp can carry their own brood of eggs. After hatching, the shrimp larvae (called zoeae) live in the plankton and will molt fourteen times before reaching adulthood.

Unsurprisingly, Pacific Cleaner Shrimp are extremely popular in saltwater reef aquariums. However, only experience aquarium owners should purchase a dentist shrimp for themselves: they require very specific ranges in pH, temperature and salinity in order to thrive in their environment. You’ll also want to make sure that none of the fish species already in your tank view Pacific Cleaner Shrimp as food. If properly cared for, your shrimp could live for more than three years.

To finish out this post, I think we can all agree “Pacific Cleaner Shrimp” is boring and “Scarlet Skunk Cleaner Shrimp” is just rude, so let’s call them Barbershop Shrimp. For one, the Pacific Cleaner Shrimp’s stripes and long antennae are a signal alerting fish to the shrimp’s grooming services, similarly to how a barbershop pole advertises a barbershop. Secondly, barbershop poles are colored red and white to symbolize the outdated medical practice of bloodletting, which parallels to the medical side of the Pacific Cleaner Shrimp’s cleaning behavior. Lastly (and most importantly), Pacific Cleaner Shrimp antennae look like fabulous mustaches, and where do you get a mustache professionally trimmed? At a barbershop. Boom.

Of course, this means we can now refer to troupes of Barbershop Shrimp as quartets. It just gets better and better! Someone call a lawyer, a taxonomist, and National Geographic – we have an arthropod to rename.