Home Is Where The Log Is: A Velvet Worm Short Story

When most people think of Australia, their mind conjures up images of a Mad Maxian landscape—brick red sand blemished with gray-green freckles of saltbrush. Standing tall in a rigid defiance, the occasional gum or eucalyptus serves as safe haven for koalas and kookaburras under a big hard sun. Maybe they think of the Great Barrier Reef, or, depending on their exposure to pop culture, kangaroo’s named Jack, Crocodile Hunters and Dundees, and P Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney.

Me? I think of life. I think of lush green eucalypt forests where trees stand like spires piercing through the thick tropical air. I think of cushions of moss blanketed by aromatic leaves. I think of my home. It’s a beautiful place, though I don’t go out much.

Our house sits in a clearing—it has for about 40 years. The old tenants made a lot of renovations, adding in tons of new hallways and crawl spaces. We rent out some of the space. Well, we more so just tolerate select guests, but it’s totally okay because there’s plenty of room for me and my family—all 14 of us. My second cousin and his family live nearby…idiots. A few weeks back, we crossed paths with one of them while out for an evening snack run and laid a beat down like you wouldn’t believe. They’re total jerks. Like, seriously, I hate them. I just want to spit in their stupid faces!

Anyway, where was I? The house. The roof is covered in moss and the walls grow softer by the week. The whole place is just rotting away. It’s perfect. I couldn’t ask for a better log.

My youngest brother, Rollie, won’t get off my back, but that’s just because he knows I’m the one in charge around here. Robbie and Charlie? They never seem to get the message, or at least they always seem to need a reminder. Our relationship is one built on fear and respect, really. I chase, they run. If I catch them, they’re gonna get bit. I don’t necessarily want to. I mean, I’m not heartless. Heck, I never even wanted to be in charge.

My mom, her name was Bonnie, she died a year ago. I’ll never forget that terrible moment. We were are asleep when there was a sudden thud on the roof. It got closer. This pounding. I’ve never felt anything like it. We scrambled deeper into the hallways and crawlways. Somehow the sun found its way in through the roof. We were all so scared. I didn’t know what to do! Then, everything fell still. I scrambled through the group, reading their bodies like brail and picking up whatever signals I could. I found all but one. My mother was gone…

The whole group was in shambles. They needed a leader. Everyone came to me first, stroking my back with their antennae. It wasn’t the consoling kind of back rub. It was more…inquisitive. I remember my aunt insisting that she was the largest and therefore Leader was her rightful place. She wouldn’t settle until everyone had checked thoroughly. But here we are, so you know how that turned out. After that, everything changed. Folks paired off to form what we call aggregates. There’s Paul and I, my aunt and uncle, two of my sisters, and then all of my annoying brothers.

Life around here is pretty simple. Like I said before, we don’t get out much, but when we do, it’s usually to get some grub and we never go out during the day. I still remember our first hunt after my mom passed. I didn’t know how to lead. I remember sitting in my chamber when Paul came in, his long body bending around the corner, chest slightly raised. I couldn’t see him, but I could feel him, like the energy around me just changed.

“You okay?”, he asked.

“I’m fine.”

“Well,” he said “it rained all day. The sun’s going down, and it’s been a few weeks since we all had a good meal. What do you say?”

I was nervous, reluctant, but my family needed me. They needed a leader.

You know those scenes out of movies where a group of friends walks into a room in slow motion, and they’re feeling themselves, and flipping their hair, and it’s, oh, it’s just awesome. I’ve never seen it, but I know a cockatoo who has seen that before through some humans window, and he said that is what we look like when we’re on the prowl. He also says that I look like a dismembered starfish arm, but I have no idea what that means.

We glide along the forest floor, with the same focus and control of an Amur Leopard. Our steady strut is the envy of nature documentarians around the globe. We bend around branches, and silently move along beds of moss on the pads of our feet, only retracting our claws when we need to get a grip. We keep our chests raised with the confidence of a croc as we stay in tune with every micrometer of our bodies, waiting to see the slightest variation in vibration or wind current to clue us in on the location of our months meal.

A millipede wraps its body in a corkscrew around a fallen branch an ants length away from me. This is my shot—my moment. It brushes my antennae. I raise up undetected, steady my aim, and….

Release

Two streams unleash in full force, crossing paths and in their collision forming a wave of which there is no escape. My slime begins to harden as soon as it’s left. The cricket, easily twice my size, struggles to break free. It’s useless. The more he struggles, the more my trap serves its purpose.

A moment has passed, the millipede growing weaker by the second, and I’m just sitting there, fully expecting, hoping, that my mother will brush my side as she goes in for the kill. She always ate first. The leader always does, but she never comes. I make my move, feeling for a joint, or some other weak point in the milipedes armor plating. I find it and hone in! With a dagger like pierce I inject my saliva into the now lifeless body of the millipede which immediately begins its work of digesting its meat, allowing me to enjoy my dinner as a smoothie. While I wait, I quickly locate my slime and begin to eat whatever of it that I can. No one, espcially the leader, can afford to go slimeless. I return to the site of the fatal wound, form a seal around the opening, and enjoy my feast. Over the next hour, that’s what I do. My aunt and sisters circle nearby, waiting their turn. My brothers stay waaaayyyy back. They know better. Besides, they’ll get their turn. Later, Philip and I get close, cleaning our antennae with full bellies.

“You’re mom would be proud”

“I know”, I snarkily reply. I’ve never been one for modesty.

Later that night, we returned home. Weeks go by before anyone gets hungry. We spend time exploring the new renovations made by our termite roomies. Lord knows we can’t tunnel ourselves. The family has grown since then. Some of us have split off to new logs to start our own families, but this…this is my home….and it’s a beautiful place.

Is it a Worm? Is it a Wasp? No! It’s the Elm Sawfly!

This past weekend as I sat below an old oak tree while drinking my morning cup of coffee and looking out on a glassy Lake Darling in Alexandria, Minnesota, something fell from the sky and landed at my feet. Small and curled up like a slightly puff green and yellow sour gummy worm. It’s face made it look like a Pokémon, or like one of those smiley face antenna toppers. Two hours later, another fell in the same exact spot. If I didn’t already know what it was, I would think it was a caterpillar of some sort.

It’s adult form is even more deceiving. Last summer my mother in-law killed one on the very same patch of land worries that it was a wasp of some sort. It was then that I first looked into it’s true identity and also happened across the first larvae of the species that I had ever seen.

This little critter is none other than the Elm Sawfly (Cimbex americana). Larvae of this species can range from this yellow and green color to a sort of orange and pink tone and are distinguished by being the largest of the sawflies with a bold black stripe that runs vertically down its back, though the latter is more rare.

But what is a Sawfly?

They belong to the suborder Symphta of the overall order Hymenoptera—the very order that bees, ants, and wasps belong to. Now, you may have noticed how very wasp-like these critters look. Is it some form of mimicry? Not likely considering sawflies predate wasps evolutionarily a roughly 250 million years old. The name Sawfly is given to them based on the saw like structures on their ovipositors, specialized syringe-like appendages used to cut into stems and leaves to inject their eggs. Despite their fierce look, they do not sting.

There are nearly 8000 species of Sawfly sound the world, and most of them are herbivores, feeding largely on pollens and nectars. The one I had an encounter with is the largest Sawfly species in North America at roughly the size of a fun-size Snickers. Those adults, however, like most insect adult stages, are very short lived. We’re talking less than a week—just enough time to reproduce and lay eggs.

The eggs are injected into the stem or leaf of whatever the particular host may be in clusters of nearly 50 eggs each where they form a sort of gall. The host may very depending on the species. In the case of the Elm Sawfly, Elm is presumed to be the tree of choice—a once common neighborhood tree before the rise of Dutch Elm Disease—but other hardwood species and willows may be selected as well. After hatching 1-2 months later and feeding on the leaf, they will either pupate in the soil or in a cocoon (depending on the species) on their journey into their brief adulthood before beginning the cycle anew. In the case of the Elm Sawfly, they drop from the tree to the soil where they curl up and complete their metamorphosis overwinter, which is exactly what the two were doing this past weekend st the lake!

Sunday Fish Sketch| The Cookiecutter Shark

Meet the Cookiecutter Shark

Isistius brasiliensis

Cookiecutter shark head

It’s #Sharkweek so this weeks #SundayFishSketch theme is, well, sharks! So, here is my favorite—the Cookiecutter Shark. Also know as the cigar shark for that one time a sailor mistook it for a cigar and only realized their mistake after trying to light it up—kidding of course— Isistius brasiliensis is  shark of the family Dalatiidae. The genus name, Isistius, is based on Isis. No, not the terrorist group, but after Isis, the Egyptian goddess of light.

They inhabit warm, deep (about 2 miles down. So, deep for us, but on an overall oceanic scale) ocean waters around the world where they spend most of their time hovering in the water column like little creeps. This shark occurs in warm, oceanic waters worldwide. At dusk, they migrate vertically to the surface. They are fairly small in comparison to what one would typically think of when imagining a shark, at less than two feet maximum.

Isistius brasiliensis distmap

Perhaps the coolest adaptation of the cookie cutter shark is the way that it uses bioluminescence in tandem with its dark brown color to create two different visual manipulations. Possessing light-emitting photophores on its underside, the produced glowing green light helps to give the appearance of light entering the water from above when viewed from underneath. This is part of why they move up and down the water column depending on the time of day—to match the amount of light and not risk standing out like a neon take-out sign. The dark collar, on the other hand, is believed to act as a lure which mimics the silhouette of smaller fish. When a potential predator approaches the lure, the shark seizes upon the opportunity to quickly attach itself using its Steven Tyler lips and biopsies a 2 inch wide and 3 inch deep circular chunk out of the pursuer. In the words of Michael Gary Scott, “My, how the turntables…”. The cookiecutter also is known to travel in schools which only enhances this illusionary trickery.

It uses its top teeth to grip before retracting it’s tongue in a very clever way that creates suction before using the lower teeth as a bandsaw while it violently shakes and wiggles to retrieve its fleshy dumpling.Cookiecutter damage

In some parts of the world, virtually every dolphin (or other Cetacean) exhibits scars from this nightmare baker. Seals and other pinniped, large fish, and really any medium to large sized creature (including squids) are fair game—sometimes even humans (though that’s rare so don’t freak out, please.)

Sunday Fish Sketch| Freshwater Elephantfish

This #SundayFishSketch comes from Ichthyologist, Rene Martin. Visit her shop on InPrint to see more of her artwork or to order prints!


Meet the Freshwater Elephantfish

Mormyridae

Elefantenrüsselfisch
Mormyridae is an African family of 200 or so species in the biological order Osteoglossiformes. Oddly enough, but fitting in line with the peculiar and weirdly specific nature of systematics, Osteoglossiformes means “bony tongue” in Greek, so you can probably safely assume that these fishes do indeed have bony tongues.

If you think that’s interesting, you may just be a nerd. Coincidentally, so are these fish! They are known for having oddly large brains and high intelligence. In fact, there brain/body ratio is similar to that of humans! Just another lesson in why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

The 200-ish species have extraordinary diversity, ranging in sizes between 2 inches and 5 feet.

Some other fun facts: the brain size is likely related to the fact that they have extraordinary bio-electric reception. This is because they tend to live in murky water and can only see red, so evolution had to throw them at least a bit of a bone. In fact, they generate an electrical field from specialized organs that they can use to better sense their environment. They are basically Matt Murdock. If you don’t know who that is, he’s Daredevil. If you don’t know who that is, we can’t be friends.

Also, they’ve only got one left gonad and tailless sperm. Odd, right?

So, there you have it. Elephantfish. Not elephants at all. Entirely fish. But definitely a bit elephanty in appearance. Sometimes.

The Dragonhunter

In the skies across Minnesota (and much of the eastern US and southeastern Canada, for that matter), roams a fierce and agile predator, capable of taking down prey you would never imagine—and some many wouldn’t dare to try at themselves.

Hagenius brevistylus, is a clubtail dragonfly known as the Dragonhunter, and is one of nearly 150 species found in Minnesota. Clubtails are the name given to members of the Gomphidae family consisting of about 900 species, itself. The Dragonhunter is by far the largest North American clubtail, reaching lengths near 3.5 inches.

The name Dragonhunter is one earned by reputation. Aerial ambush of darners and other clubtail is common, but other dragonflies aren’t their only kills. Dragonhunters have also been documented to prey on Monarch butterflies, feeding on select parts to avoid the highest concentration of toxins. If that isn’t impressive, dragonhunters have even been documented to pursue and successfully kill hummingbirds. Yes, hummingbirds. That’s surprising to a lot of people considering that hummingbirds are known for their speed and agility. They can flap their wings at 80 beats per second to hover in place and even fly upside down or backwards.

Dragonflies have that beat.

They are perfected flying machines. They can hover, fly sideways, upside down, vertically, and are the only insect that can fly backwards.

A dragonfly can accelerate at 3 Gs and make a near effortless turn at 9 Gs.

For reference, astronauts experience 3 Gs from a space shuttle launch. Most fighter jets can only pull up to 9 Gs vertically.

Still not resonating? A 150 lb person at 1 G weighs 450 lbs at 3 Gs.

There are a number of anatomical adaptations that allow for dragonflies to pull of these jaw-dropping maneuvers. In fact, the more closely you look at dragonflies, the more impressive and awe-inspiring they are. In fact, dragonflying—seeking out and identifying dragonflies—is a a fast growing hobby.

Rather than spoil everything for you right here, right now, I’ll leave you with this: we will be doing a podcast episode on dragonflies in the coming months, so stay tuned for more!