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.

Giant Weta: The Cricket the Size of a Hamster

A Giant Weta photographed by Sid Mosdell on Flickr

The first time I saw a Giant Weta was in the pages of a children’s science magazine in elementary school. In the photo, someone was holding what I at first believed was a massive cricket in one hand while feeding it a regular-sized carrot with the other. Of course, I immediately wanted one as a pet.

While Giant Weta do love carrots (as well as fruits and smaller insects), my dreams of owning a Giant Weta will never come to pass: these colossal critters only live in New Zealand. The Giant Weta is also endangered as a result of invasive predators (especially rats and cats) and habitat destruction, so it wouldn’t be a good idea to take one even if I could.

Along with grasshoppers and crickets, the Giant Weta is a member of the order Orthoptera. While not actually the world’s largest insect (that title belong to the giant walking stick), it is the heaviest, weighing in at up to 2.5 ounces. Its weight renders the Giant Weta flightless and unable to jump, which used to not be a problem before predatory mammals were brought to the islands where it lives. Nowadays, that is definitely an issue.

While rats and Weta fill similar ecological roles, birds and reptiles like kiwi and tuatara depend on Weta as an important food source. Fortunately, groups like the New Zealand Department of Conservation are working hard to restore the populations of many Weta species. One ongoing project involves relocating Tusked Weta to islands devoid of invasive predators. Weta are also being bred in captivity, where they can be studied for conservation purposes and later released to boost population numbers in their native habitats.

Although their genus name (Deinacrida) means “fierce grasshopper,” Giant Weta are rather mellow compared to other Weta species. It is very rare to be bitten by a Giant Weta: although their mandibles are strong enough to crunch carrots, they are much more likely to run away than draw blood if threatened. In fact, handfeeding carrots to Giant Weta is pretty common in New Zealand.

Maybe I’ll have to make my way around to New Zealand after all. Even if I can’t bring one home with me, handfeeding a cricket the size of a hamster sounds like an extraordinary experience.

Don’t Touch the Disembodied Mustache

A Southern Flannel Moth caterpillar captured by Judy Gallagher on Flickr

If you’ve ever seen a mustache crawling up a tree, chances are you actually found yourself face-to-face with a Southern Flannel Moth caterpillar. These incredibly fluffy larvae grow up to be equally fluffy moths and live everywhere from Texas to Florida and up to New Jersey in the United States. Now that I’ve finally seen a luna moth, this fuzzy fellow is next on my bucket list of moths I must see in person.

You can look for them in local trees and bushes, but don’t touch – these caterpillars (quite tragically) are anything but cuddly. Those luscious locks hide poisonous spines that administer burning stings and swollen rashes. This painful defense mechanism earned them the nickname of “asp caterpillar” in reference to venomous snakes of the same name. If you are stung, applying ice pack to the rash is recommended, as well as using tape or tweezers to remove any spines still stuck in your skin.

Southern Flannel Moth caterpillars actually have a ton of nicknames. You may hear them called “woolly slugs,” “puss caterpillars,” “possum bugs,” and my personal favorite because it’s what I call my dog a lot: “perritos,” the Spanish word for puppies. With each molt, perritos (of course that’s what I’m calling them now) typically fade from yellow or brown to white and get progressively hairier until it’s time to pupate, and they typically feed on the leaves of common deciduous trees as they grow.

Perritos tend to build their cocoons on their host trees (the trees they eat from), other nearby plants, or on the sides of buildings. As they pupate, they shed their fluff and pack it into a bump in the cocoon called the hair pocket. I mean, I guess that’s easier than pausing metamorphosis to unzip the cocoon and dump all that hair out, right? Interestingly, Southern Flannel Moths do not emerge bald but are fluffy once more by the end of their pupation.

The perrito’s tough cocoon will protect it throughout the winter or summer, releasing the adult moth in early summer or fall for two generations of moths each year (or three in the Deep South, where the climate is warmer year-round). After the moth flies away, the empty cocoon persists for a long time and can be used as a shelter for other insects or spiders.

A Southern Flannel Moth adult from the Flickr page of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Don’t you just want to hug it? It’s so fluffy! I need a stuffed animal version of this asap.

As adults, Southern Flannel Moths no longer possess poison spines, but they still don’t have much time for being cuddled: female moths will lay hundreds of eggs just days after completing their metamorphosis. The eggs take about a week to hatch, and then American parks are filled with crawling, poison-tipped mustaches again.

You may be wondering, “why are these moths so fluffy, anyway?” Well, apart from just making them look cute, moth fur (really setae, or fancy, hair-like scales) keeps the insect warm but also pulls off easily so the moth can escape if it gets stuck in a spider web.

That’s right, moth fluff is both fashionable and practical. Is God the master tailor, or is God the master tailor? That, or He thought it’d be funny to use the fur He’d set aside for the naked mole rats on moths instead. Either way, just one look at these fluffy insects will tell you He has a knack for subtle beauty – and of course, a sense of humor.

Dance of the Balloon Flies

A female balloon fly captured by Katja Schulz on Flickr

It’s February, and you know what that means – it’s time to talk about arthropods in love.

Dance flies, dipterans of the family Empididae and this week’s featured arthropod, are probably best known for their unique and romantic mating rituals. When dance fly mating season rolls around, male (or in some species female) dance flies swarm together and begin to dance in hopes of wooing the opposite sex. Then the female or male dance flies take to the sky to join the fun, and when two dancing dipterans catch each other’s eye, they join together and drop out of the swarm – literally. They just hug each other and fall out of the sky like cartoon characters who’ve just realized they’re running on air.

Okay, so there is a little more to it than that: dance flies don’t pick their dance partner (plummet partner?) willy-nilly. Males are looking for females with large abdominal sacs, which may signify the number of eggs the female has. Females, on the other hand, are looking for the male carrying the best present. See, apart from memorizing all that dance choreography, male dance flies have to carry a gift of food for the female. These gifts are wrapped in silk balloons, earning these dipterans the nickname “balloon flies.”

Dance flies do not mate for life and actually mate with several different partners during the mating season. To score as many free meals as possible, female dance flies often inflate their abdominal sacs in hopes of wooing more males. While it’s true that dance flies may be a bit more concerned about food than true love, I still think it’s cute that they dance and picnic together.

Interestingly, dance flies of the species Empis snoddyi present empty balloons to their mates. Males of this species with medium-sized balloons tend to be chosen by the most females, as their present isn’t too small to go unnoticed but isn’t large enough to burden them when their mate chases them out of the dance hall.

Oh, yes – Empis snoddyi females chase after males before deciding to mate with them. Maybe they’re testing their flying ability. Maybe they’re trying to play tag. We’ll never know – actually no, we probably will know at some point. Scientists really enjoy studying flies.

Apart from performing amusing dances in the sky, dance flies make pretty great neighbors because they prey on mosquitoes and other pesky insects. On the other hand, some species drink nectar and are invaluable pollinators, especially at high altitudes and in areas devoid of bees. This Valentine’s Day, let your love extend to these important insects, and maybe take their advice and treat your significant other to their favorite meal… just maybe don’t wrap it in fly silk.

Indestructible Tardigrades

At less than 0.05 inches long, most tardigrades are too small to be seen (or at least differentiated from the common dust speck) without a microscope. However, no matter where you live, these tiny animals are probably close by if you’re willing to look for them.

A tardigrade is a teensy aquatic animal belonging to the phylum Tardigrada. Tardigrada is part of the larger clade Panarthropoda along with phyla Onychophora and Arthropoda – that said, I’m kind of cheating talking about tardigrades on an arthropod blog since they aren’t arthropods themselves. Nevertheless, I think tardigrades are pretty stinkin’ cool, and it’s kind of unclear where they actually belong in terms of animal phylogeny anyway. So, I’m going to say they’re close enough to being arthropods, and we’re gonna talk about ’em.

Tardigrades are often referred to as “water bears,” which I guess makes sense as long as you ignore the fact that they have eight legs. And have no ears or fur. And have that weird tubey thing in the middle of what one would assume to be their face.

A tardigrade illustration uploaded to Flickr by Rebekah Smith

Honestly, they look a lot more like legged micro-croissants than any animal I’ve seen. But “water bear” is a cute name, so I guess we’ll stick with that for now.

Water bears like to live in moist environments, preferably in moss (earning them the additional nickname “moss piglet”). Commonly herbivorous (but occasionally cannibalistic), tardigrades use that funky tube or stylet to puncture plant cell walls and drink up the cytoplasm inside. They also hunt down and suck up the innards of harmful bacteria.

One of the reasons I find water bears so fascinating is that they are virtually indestructible – and keep in mind, this is an animal whose skin is thin enough to see through under a microscope. While these itty-bitty animals prefer the comfy microclimate of a moss bed, they are found everywhere: on the highest mountain peaks, in the deepest depths of the ocean, on every continent and in every biome. However, not all environments are equally suitable for a tardigrade to live in, especially habitats devoid of water. When water runs low, the tardigrade undergoes a process called cryptobiosis in which it basically reversibly dies. It’s like if you ran out of food and fell into a coma but woke up again the instant someone walked in with the groceries.

The specific form of cryptobiosis most tardigrades undergo is called anhydrobiosis, in which the tardigrade expels all the water from its body and folds up like an accordion into a special state called a tun. Water bears could teach us all a lesson in patience: a tardigrade tun will spring back to life as soon as it comes in contact with water again, but it can wait in this state for decades. In fact, tardigrades were once revived from a moss sample in a museum that was 100 years old!

A tardigrade photographed by Phillipe Garcelon on Flickr. The two tiny dots on its head are its eyes.

Even in harsh environments, tuns are incredibly resistant: they have been known to survive extremely hot and cold temperatures, obscene levels of radiation, and even outer space. Let me rephrase that last bit: someone thought “hey, let’s launch some tardigrades into the cold emptiness of space and see if they survive.” And they did! Dehydrated water bears can float around completely exposed in the vacuum of space and live to tell the tale. And not just for a few hours, either: those tardigrade tuns were left in orbit for ten days, and most went on to live happy, healthy lives after being rehydrated.

Alas, even the mighty water bear has its limits: tardigrades are unable to survive the human digestive system, or being fired from a gun. No, not being fired at with a gun – being fired out of a gun.

Scientist 1: Wow, tardigrades can survive in the vacuum of space, amazing! There really is no limit to their resiliency.

Scientist 2: Or is there?

Scientist 1: How could there be? We’ve frozen them, cooked them, bombarded them with radiation… what else could we possibly subject them to?

Scientists 2: Have you ever seen a human cannonball act?

So, to sum up today’s post: there are probably some tiny, nigh-indestructible animals called water bears in your vicinity, and scientists have way too much time on their hands.

If Alexander Hamilton Was a Spider…

I have been obsessed with Hamilton ever since it came out on Disney+, so you’d better believe I wasn’t going to pass up “My Shot” when I realized one of these biweekly posts would fall on Alexander Hamilton’s birthday. And I have the perfect arthropod for such an occasion: ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the yellow garden spider, also known as the writing spider.

A gorgeous writing spider captured by Melissa McMasters on Flickr

Outside of the popular musical, Alexander Hamilton is especially well known for his writing, including but certainly not limited to the bulk of the Federalist Papers and articles for his newspaper, then called the New York Evening Post. Likewise, many writing spiders are accomplished essayists and journalists, some of whom have written articles advocating for the ethical treatment of pigs.

Just kidding. They’re actually famous for writing nonsense zig-zags that look much more like a zipper to me than anything actually legible. Perhaps writing spiders aren’t the best analogy for Hamilton after all.

The purpose of that “zipper,” or stabilimentum (fancy word for web decoration), is a bit of a mystery. It’s theorized that stabilimenta help stabilize the web (I see where the word probably comes from now), keep birds from flying into the web, or play a role in attracting insects.

Each web takes hours to weave, and the spiders spin a brand-new web every day, often in the same place. Once the web is constructed, the writing spider will sit in the middle and “Wait For It”: when prey get snagged in the web, vibrations alert the spider, who quickly descends upon its meal. Writing spiders may also engage in web-flexing, a common orb weaver behavior in which the spider shakes its web defensively or to further entangle its prey.

It could be that bugs get snagged trying to read that intricate zipper, but it’s more likely that they can’t see the web at all and fly right into it. Like most spiders, writing spiders construct their webs out of silk that reflects UV light, making their sticky traps virtually invisible to unsuspecting insects. Even though you can see them with your fancy human eyes, you still ought to let these big arachnids “Stay Alive” in your yard or garden: writing spiders prey on all sorts of annoying pests like mosquitoes, flies, and aphids. Plus, I think they’re really pretty, and their venom poses little to no threat to humans. And that’s a really good thing, because my family and I were attacked by hordes of writing spiders at Carolina Beach State Park.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but don’t hike the Flytrap Trail if you’re arachnophobic. We took the trail back in the fall of 2019 hoping to see some Venus flytraps, but instead my brother, parents and I saw writing spider after writing spider after writing spider. We had to walk directly under a number of spiders, and their blanket-sized webs on either side of the trail soundly deterred us from taking any shortcuts – we were feeling quite unnerved and “Helpless” to say the least. It was still a nice hike, and we ended up seeing some pitcher plants, but some of my less arachnid-loving family members were pretty relieved when we made it back to the parking lot.

Venus flytraps are carnivorous plants endemic to the longleaf pine forests of Southeastern North Carolina and parts of South Carolina. I still haven’t seen one in the wild, but they do grow naturally at Carolina Beach State Park. Thanks to NC Wetland’s Flickr page for the photo!

If you’re a spider lover but you don’t live in the Wilmington area, don’t worry – as long as you live in North or Central America, you still have a pretty good chance at running into a writing spider. I mean, hopefully not literally, as neither one of you would find that very pleasant, but they’re pretty cool to admire from a few feet back. Plus, there’s a myth that if you damage the spider’s web, it’ll write your name in its stabilimentum the next day, which is… bad, for some reason? That actually sounds pretty cool. But don’t try it, “We Know” these spiders are illiterate, so you’d just be wrecking their food nets for no reason.

Happy Birthday, Alexander Hamilton. I hope you would’ve been “Satisfied” with this post about writing spiders and all the “Non-Stop” Hamilton references.

And remember everyone: “The World [Is] Wide Enough” for both writing spiders and us. If you could just leave them alone for those of us who don’t like mosquitoes and garden pests, “That Would Be Enough.”

“Your Obedient Servant,”

– A. Blogger

A Party in a Seashell: Meet the Tusk Shell Hermit Crabs

I just wrapped up a class in invertebrate zoology last semester, and oh my goodness y’all, there are so many more wacky little animals out there than I ever could have imagined.

Exhibit A: tusk shell hermit crabs. Exhibit B would be the tusk shells themselves, but this is an arthropod blog, and those wacky little Scaphopods sadly belong to the wrong phylum (Mollusca).

Tusk shell hermit crabs belong to the family Paguridae, also known as the “right-handed hermit crabs,” so I guess we all know which cheliped (claw) these guys are using to write their Christmas thank-you cards. On the other hand (ha), Diogenidae is a family of entirely left-handed hermit crabs, which means a Pagurid and a Diogenid could never have a fair arm-wrestling match.

Tusk shell hermit crab profiles from the Biodiversity Heritage Lab on Flickr

Take a look at the cheliped the tusk shell hermit crab in the bottom right is using like a front door. That circular door-claw and the relative symmetry of the crab’s body (most hermit crabs are asymmetrical to fit into spiraled shells) make it a perfect fit for any empty tusk shell its size. In fact, a 1999 study on tusk shell hermit crab behavior found that the crabs prefer tusk shells even when given the option of a traditional gastropod shell. Yep, these funky little dudes were specifically designed to live in deep-sea party hats, and they know it.

Can we call them party crabs? I’m gonna call them party crabs.

In addition to closing the front of their shell, party crabs have to plug up the end of their party hat as well. Because the Scaphopod mollusk likes to burrow in the sand, it uses the hole in the tip of its shell like a snorkel for obtaining and expelling water for gas exchange. However, the party crab isn’t a burrower, so it doesn’t need to circulate water to its gills this way.

Unfortunately, party crabs are somewhat rare and tend to live pretty deep in the ocean, so not much is known about them. That means this is turning into one of my shorter posts, but hey – we’re all on break from school right now, so I’m letting you read less. You’re welcome.

I really just wanted to talk about these crabs because of how cute they are (my motivation behind the majority of ArthroBlogger posts, honestly), but because of the whole super-rare, not-much-known-about-them thing, there aren’t a lot of party crab photos in the public domain. Instead, I’m just going to leave this hyperlink here for you to click on to see how adorable these little guys are for yourself. Aren’t they great? And they’re colored like orange candy canes! Plus, those party hats kind of look like elf hats; I should’ve posted these guys on Christmas.

Happy (almost) New Year everyone! I hope 2022 will be a great year for you to learn, grow, have tons of fun, and leave 2020 just a little further behind.

In the meantime, if you’re looking to spice up your New Year’s Eve celebration, I know a few hermit crabs who were born to party.

Holly Jolly Thorn Bugs

Some strange yet beautiful thorn bugs captured by Malcolm Manners on Flickr

Now that December’s here, it’s time for Christmas-themed arthropods! On first glance you probably wouldn’t pick thorn bugs to ring in the season, but you’ve got to admit that they look a lot like tiny Christmas trees when you’re in a holiday mood.

While I’m tempted to call them “Christmas tree bugs” to fit the season, I really don’t have a problem with the name “thorn bug.” These guys really do look like thorns, and they’re actually true bugs in the order Hemiptera. More specifically, thorn bugs are species of treehoppers that belong to the infraorder Cicadamorpha along with cicadas (duh), which explains their resemblance to said fellow bugs – minus the giant back spike, of course.

Aside from looking cool, that big spike (called a pronotum if you want to be fancy) fools predators into thinking that the thorn bug is just a thorn on a branch. It also helps protect the insect if its foes get too close – thorn bugs aren’t dangerous to humans, but their thorn may inadvertently stick you just like the real thing if you pick them up wrong.

Unfortunately, these funny-looking fellas don’t always bring tidings of comfort and joy. Found in South and Central America as well as Mexico and Florida, thorn bugs are regarded as pests that suck the sap from fruit trees and ornamental trees with their proboscises. As they often travel in groups, a colony of thorn bugs can damage tree health by causing defoliation and even the death of particular branches that have been sucked dry. They also attract ants and other insects with the honey dew they secrete. However, I’d still consider them relatively mild pests, especially since they don’t actually eat the trees’ fruit.

Like a lot of the arthropods we’ve discussed before, thorn bugs are surprisingly great family bugs. The mother thorn bug will cut a groove into the bark of a tree to lay her eggs in and continue to guard her brood long after they hatch. The newly hatched nymphs do possess two more thorns than their parents, but they’re unable to fly and have softer bodies, so the extra protection is very much appreciated. Mother thorn bugs watch over their broods even as they shed their exoskeletons for the last time to emerge as full-fledged adults, guarding the temporarily soft-bodied but mature thorn bugs from any shifty predators lurking nearby. Because of this fierce maternal protection, thorn bug nymphs have a relatively high survival rate of 50%.

Thorn bugs are typically active year-round and become more active as it gets colder, so the idea of seeing one of these crawling Christmas trees around the holidays isn’t too farfetched if you live within their habitat range. In fact, thorn bugs would make great caroling buddies – they’re known for their variety of calls and sounds, so like wintertime cicadas, they’d make for some great background music!

Of course, they only know Christmas tree songs, so uh… I hope you really like “O Tannenbaum.”

Millipedes or Pool Dragons?

The first time I worked up the nerve to put my head underwater as a kid, I wished I never would have to bring it back up again. Being underwater is like entering a whole other dimension: it’s quieter, it’s slower, and gravity is negotiable. In other words I basically prefer water to air, so a good chunk of my summer vacations growing up were spent at the neighborhood pool.

For the most part, I did a lot of stuff people normally do at the pool. I was on the swim team, I learned diving board tricks, I frequented the snack bar for Airhead Xtremes, and I played Marco Polo and make-believe games with my friends. However, being a bug lover, I also spent a considerable portion of my time saving tiny animals that had fallen into the water, most notably bees, mulch lobsters, and millipedes.

While the bees and the mulch lobsters were a yearly sight, the millipedes went away after our first couple years as pool members. Nevertheless, I still think about them every time I wander over to the shallow end. These were garden millipedes: thin, brown, inch-long diplopods with white legs and underbellies. Garden millipedes release a smelly liquid from their armpits and curl up like tiny cinnamon rolls when they’re scared, and in my book they are unarguably adorable. To learn more about how wonderful albeit smelly millipedes in general are, check out the Millipedes vs. Centipedes post.

A pool dragon profile by João Coelho on Flickr

Unlike most millipedes, garden millipedes don’t have eyes and instead use their antennae to get around, so I can’t really blame them for stumbling into the pool. They’re also a lot less colorful and intricate than most other species in the “dragon millipede” family, Paradoxosomatidae. Yeah, trying saying that times three fast! Or once, at normal speed. I’m trying to sound it out as I type this and it’s just not happening.

I really like the name “dragon millipede” though, especially since it’s much easier to pronounce than paradox-whatever, so I’m renaming garden millipedes “pool dragons.” Hold all applause til the end of the post, please.

Because pool dragons aren’t native to North America and can adapt well to otherwise unwelcoming ecosystems, they’re pretty common in urban areas. Unfortunately, they have few if any natural predators here and multiply quickly, so it’s not exactly thrilling when you find they’ve decided to colonize your garage. Like other diplopods, however, pool dragons don’t bite and pose no threat to humans, so they’re more of a nuisance than a health issue even when they infest homes or public areas. They also seem more likely to populate outdoor areas like patios and greenhouses (hence their “greenhouse millipede” nickname) than to actually form colonies in buildings. However, if it gets too hot outside, they have been known to come indoors. Or take a dip in the pool, apparently.

My family stopped renewing our pool memberships when I was in high school. I still miss those days when I could just walk up the road on a hot day and go for a swim. I miss my teammates, the diving boards, the Krispy Kreme donut the morning after a swim meet… perhaps most of all, I miss diving into the deep end and staring up at the sky from the bottom of the pool. Some of the best daydreams take shape underwater.

…And some of the best daydreams are rudely interrupted when you notice a mulch lobster or pool dragon crawling down the wall and you have to rush it back up to the surface before it drowns itself. I love arthropods, but sometimes they can be kinda stupid.