Carpenter Ant (genus Camponotus)

I find writing about ants difficult. Often there’s not a ton of information at the species level, and when you look at the genus as a whole, there’s way too much information. Still, ants are some of the most incredible insects around, so I’m going to do my best with today’s post!

You’ve probably heard of carpenter ants, but did you know there are over one thousand species of carpenter ant? They are found all over the world, particularly in forested areas. Carpenter ants are so named because they build their nests in moist and decaying wood, both in trees and in manmade structures.

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This ant may look like it’s dancing, but it’s actually cleaning its antennae. Image credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikipedia

Carpenter ants range in size, depending on the species. They can be anywhere from .76 to 2.54 cm long. Size also depends on the ants’ roles within their colonies, as some species have small and large workers, as well as ants in other roles. They also vary in colour, from completely black to a light brown.

Though carpenter ants build nests in wood, they do not eat it. Instead, they feed on plants, nectar, and on other insects or insect products, such as honeydew from aphids. Some species of carpenter ant will ‘farm’ aphids, tending to them and then living off the sweet honeydew they produce.

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A carpenter ant queen, looking quite regal. Image credit: Alex Wild via Wikipedia

Farming aphids is super cool, adding to the argument that ants are the most amazing animals on the planet. But some species have an even cooler (and grosser) method of hunting and defending themselves. These ‘exploding’ ants have enlarged glands all over their bodies, which can burst when the ants are threatened. This kills the ant, of course, but also covers the victim in a sticky substance that immobilizes it. It may seem foolish for an animal to sacrifice itself, but don’t forget that ants live for the good of the colony, and no sacrifice is too great.

Communication is key in colonial living, so carpenter ants, like most species of ant, use pheromones to send messages to the rest of the colony. Worker ants that find food will leave a trail of pheromones to mark the shortest path from the food to the nest. Other pheromones can be used to calm worker ants, or excite them so they can defend the colony. Pheromones also let ants know which ants belong to their colony and which do not.

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My drawing of a lovely carpenter ant queen. I had fun with this one!

Carpenter ants reproduce using mating flights, which occur when things are hot and steamy (literally: nuptial flights happen when the weather is warm and humid). Female ants will mate with multiple males during this flight, and then lose their wings and head out to find new places to colonize. Once the females have found a suitable spot, they lay around twenty eggs, which hatch into workers that will help her as she continues to lay eggs. Some carpenter nests have multiple queens, though they will act aggressively towards one another and therefore have to be kept in different parts of the nest.

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An example of the damage carpenter ants can do to wooden boards. Image credit: Nwbeeson via Wikipedia

There’s no doubt that carpenter ants are incredible creatures. Unfortunately, their habit of nesting in wood means that certain species of carpenter ant can be serious pests, as they nest in buildings and can cause extensive damage. Other species around the world are used as a food source, though I’m not sure I’d want to eat an ant. Still, whether you view them as pests or food, you have to appreciate the wonderful complexity of carpenter ants.

Cover image credit: Bruce Marlin via Wikipedia

Mexican Red-knee Tarantula (Brachypelma smithi)

I haven’t written about a spider in a while, mainly because I’ve started drawing all the animals I write about. Spiders are absolutely terrifying, so drawing them is super difficult for me. But they are also really cool, so I bit the bullet this week and picked a spider for today’s post. I chose a tarantula because they’re a little less frightening than most spiders, mainly because they are kind of furry, and fur makes animals cuter.

Mexican red-knee tarantulas are aptly named, both for their red knees and because they are found in Mexico. More specifically, they live in southwestern Mexico. They are primarily found in dry areas, such as scrubland, deserts, dry thorn forests, or tropical deciduous forests. Red-knee tarantulas hide out in burrows, which are constructed at the base of thorny plants like cacti.

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A female red-knee tarantula. Females are bulkier than males, though males have longer legs. Image credit: George Chernilevsky via Wikipedia

Being tarantulas, these spiders are pretty big. They range in size from 12 to 14 cm, with males having a smaller mass than females. They are mostly black, with red-orange joints on their legs. Their abdomens are covered in brown hairs, which is the only thing that makes red-knee tarantulas somewhat acceptable to look at.

These hairs are not to be taken lightly, however. When threatened, red-knee tarantulas can eject the hairs from their abdomen at any predators. The hairs are barbed and can get stuck in skin or eyes, causing irritation and discomfort. Tarantulas do have venom, though it only has mild effects on humans, and red-knee tarantulas are quite calm and rarely bite people.

To further avoid predation, red-knee tarantulas spend much of their time in their burrows. The burrows are quite simple, consisting only of a tunnel and one or two chambers. One chamber is used for moulting, and the other for resting and eating. Tarantulas are ambush predators, waiting until an animal walks across the webs at the front of their burrows. When prey is detected, the spider emerges and holds down the prey with its front two legs, biting the victim to paralyze and liquefy it. Red-knee tarantulas feed on insects, frogs, and mice.

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A nice close up of a red-knee tarantula. Image source

Mating in red-knee tarantulas is a somewhat violent affair. Males begin by placing sperm on a special web outside a female’s burrow. The two spiders face each other while the female opens her jaws. The male then locks her jaws in place with special hooks on his front legs, and the two spiders rear up. The male then pushes the female backwards and picks up his sperm and transfers it to an opening on the female’s abdomen. Then comes the really tricky part: the male releases one of the female’s fangs and then prepares for a hasty retreat before fully letting her go, as females can be quite aggressive after mating.

Female tarantulas lay 200 to 400 eggs on a silk mat, and then deposit a liquid containing sperm onto the eggs. They then wrap their eggs in silk and carry them until they hatch, for about one to three months. The spiderlings are independent two weeks after leaving the eggs, though they do not reach sexual maturity for a number of years.

Red-knee tarantulas grow through a process called moulting, where they shed their skin, as their exoskeleton does not stretch and thus does not allow room for growth. Spiders are most vulnerable during moulting, and so they retreat into their burrows to complete the process. Red-knee tarantulas stop eating before their moults, and become sluggish. They also cannot eat for days or weeks after moulting, as their fangs are too soft to capture prey. It doesn’t sound like a very fun way to grow, but it works for spiders.

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My fun drawing of a red-knee tarantula. I was away and only had a four-coloured pen, so I couldn’t get the knees as orange as I would have liked, but she still looks pretty cool! 

Due to their docile nature and striking (though terror-inducing) appearance, red-knee tarantulas are quite popular in the pet trade. They were once caught in large numbers for export, but they have since been bred in captivity, so most specimens are now captive-bred. Habitat destruction is another threat to these lovely, gentle spiders, and they are currently listed as Near Threatened. I’m no fan of spiders, but I definitely don’t want to see any go extinct. If one enters my house, I kill it (I don’t even want to think about what I’d do if a tarantula wandered into my room), but I’m perfectly happy with spiders living happily in the wild, preferably in a country very far away from me.

Common Pill Bug (Armadillidium vulgare)

It’s funny how sometimes the most common animals are the ones I know the least about. I know a fair bit about tenrecs, cheetahs and lyrebirds, but know next to nothing about pill-bugs. In fact, I’ve barely even thought about them, asides from when I played with them as a kid. But this blog is a place for people to learn about animals (me included), so let’s talk about pill-bugs!

Pill-bugs are crustaceans, like crabs and lobsters, and belong to the genus Armadillidium, which currently has 178 known species. That’s an awful lot of species to cover, so I’m going to focus on one of the most common, and the most studied, species: Armadillidium vulgare, otherwise known as the common pill-bug. Common pill-bugs originated in Europe, near the Mediterranean, but have since been introduced around the world, with particularly dense populations in the United States.

Pill-bugs require moist soil to survive, as they do not possess a waxy cuticle to prevent themselves from drying out. As well, pill-bugs breathe from psuedotrachea, a type of modified lung that must be moist to function. Humidity levels of around 50-60% or more are ideal for pill-bugs. They are most common in temperate or Mediterranean-like climates, and are often found under debris, such as logs, stones, or human waste.

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I think pill-bugs are kind of cute, what do you think? Image credit: Franco Folini via Wikipedia

Common pill-bugs are oval shaped, and have armour-like plates along their bodies. They are not overly large, reaching sizes of 18 millimetres. Most pill-bugs are darkly coloured, with some having spots along their backs that can be yellow, brown or red. Common pill-bugs have seven pairs of legs, and a single pair of antennae.

Pill-bugs have to constantly worry about drying out, so much of their behaviour is centred around conserving moisture. When humidity is high, pill-bugs move slowly, and when humidity drops, they start to move more quickly, to search out moister areas. They move almost twice as much during the summer than in winter, and tend to be more active during the night, when moisture loss is reduced. When temperatures get to be 20 to 30 degrees celsius, pill-bugs release pheromones that cause them to bunch together, which reduces the surface area of individuals in the group, meaning less moisture is lost.

Many of you probably know that pill-bugs curl into balls, but do you know why? There are two likely reasons, the first being that all the soft, squishy parts of pill-bugs are located under their shells, so by curling into a ball pill-bugs can protect their vulnerable parts. The second is that rolling up into a ball helps prevent moisture loss, and as we’ve seen, moisture conservation is of paramount importance to these little guys.

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A pill-bug unrolling from a defensive curl. Image credit: Franco Folini via Wikipedia 

Pill-bugs fall prey to a number of animals, including birds and arthropods. They are not entirely defenceless — in addition to their armour and their rolling-in-a-ball technique, pill-bugs can release nasty secretions when threatened. Unfortunately, pill-bugs’ defences only really work against small invertebrates, and birds will readily snatch these guys up. Also, a clever genus of ants have super long mandibles that can pry open a pill-bug when it’s curled in a ball.

Pill-bugs don’t have a particularly yummy diet — they feed on leaf litter and other decaying organic matter. They are, however, quite adaptable, able to survive for several months without food, and when food is scarce, readily switch to other sources of nutrients. Pill-bugs will eat the roots of plants, seeds, fruit, other pill bugs, and even their own poop.

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I had a lot of fun drawing this fella! 

The mating season in pill-bugs depends on the climate, with mating usually occurring in warmer times. Thus in regions with mild winters, mating can occur year round, while in other areas mating usually starts in the spring. Both male and female pill-bugs mate with multiple partners, and females can store sperm for up to a year. Pill-bugs moult regularly on a 29 day cycle, during which time the bugs cannot move or eat, and are extremely vulnerable. A special moulting cycle occurs in females, called the parturial moult. Mating can only occur during a female’s parturial moult, so males have to be prepared! Female pill-bugs retain their eggs in a pouch until they hatch, for about two to three months. The little pill-bugs stay in the pouch for a few days, and after moulting a few times, are independent from their mothers.

Hopefully by now you realize just how fascinating pill-bugs are, and have a greater appreciation for them. I certainly do! These are some awesome little insects (and they’re pretty cute!)

Purple Sea Star (Pisaster ochraceus)

One thing I absolutely loved to do as a kid was wander around rocky shores, looking for any form of life. I’d lift up whatever rocks I could to search for crabs, I’d run from tidal pool to tidal pool to peer at starfish and sea anemones. I love living in Ontario, but one thing I desperately miss is the ocean. So today I’m going to going to write about a species of sea star, to fully embrace my nostalgic mood.

Probably the most common starfish I encountered as a child were large purple ones. Unsurprisingly, these are known as purple sea stars, but confusingly are also known as ocher sea stars, since not all of them are purple. They can also be orange, yellow, red or brown. That being said, most of these guys are purple, so I’ll refer to them as purple sea stars. They have five legs, each of which can be from 10 to 25 cm long. Purple sea stars are covered in very small spines, which are no bigger than 2 mm in height.

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An example of some colour variants in purple sea stars. Image credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson

Purple sea stars live in the Pacific Ocean, from Alaska to California. Depthwise, they can be found from 90 m to the low-tide zone. They are commonly found along the coast, on mussel beds and rocky shores. Special suckers on their feet allow purple sea stars to cling to rocks with great force, so they can withstand violent waves.

Despite their harmless looks, purple sea stars are quite vicious eaters. They feed mainly on mussels, but will also eat chitons, limpets, snails, barnacles, and sea urchins. They will swallow their prey whole if they can, grabbing their meal with their tubular feet and then everting their stomach onto their prey. The digestive enzymes in the starfish’s stomachs will then liquify the victim, so it can be easily ingested.

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A purple sea star. Image credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikipedia

Mussels try and defend against starfish by clamping their shells together very tightly, but sea stars are patient hunters. Mussels need to open their shells slightly, both to breathe and to feed. The starfish then use their strong feet to pull the mussel shell further open, and insert part of their stomach into the shell, digesting the poor mussel inside. Purple sea stars have quite large appetites, with one sea star being able to eat eighty Californian mussels a year (a California mussel can reach lengths of 20 cm, so they aren’t small).

Purple sea stars breeding from May to July, with both sexes releasing gametes into the water. If all goes well, sperm and eggs meet in the ocean,  and the fertilized eggs can drift around until they hatch. Sea stars progress through a number of larval stages, and at this stage of their life the little starfish are filter feeders, relying on plankton to sustain them. Purple sea stars live to be at least four years of age, and may live much longer.

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I decided to try something a bit more abstract for this week’s drawing. I had fun with all the shapes!

Purple sea stars aren’t just pretty; they are an extremely important species. Thanks to their diet, purple sea stars help keep mussel populations under control. A loss of only a few purple sea stars leads to a drastic increase in mussel populations. When sea stars are present, the intertidal ecosystem is diverse, instead of becoming dominated by mussels. So next time you see a sea star, remember that they help keep our oceans wonderfully diverse!

Cover image source

Liguus Snail (genus Liguus)

Okay, I’ll admit it — I picked this week’s animal solely because it looked super fun to draw. When I think of brightly coloured, beautiful animals, snails don’t usually come to mind. But there’s a certain genus of snails, known as Liguus, that are well-known for their amazingly vivid shells.

There are currently five species of Liguus snail, though there are many subspecies classified under each species of Liguus. Originally some of the subspecies were thought to be completely different species because their shells were very different in colour, but it turns out these snails just have a lot of intraspecific variety in their shells. Liguus fasciatus alone is known to have more than 120 different colour varieties.

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Amazingly, all these shells are from the same species, Liguus fasciatus. Image credit: Henry A. Pilsbry via Wikipedia

Liguus snails are found in a relatively small range, with most species restricted to Cuba and Hispaniola. One species, Liguus fasciatus, is also found in southern Florida. Liguus snails are terrestrial, and spend most of their time in trees, and prefer trees that have smooth bark. I guess if you have to slime your way across a surface, you wouldn’t want it to be super rough.

Do you know what snails eat? I had never actually thought about it. Liguus snails feed on a tasty and nutritious diet of moss, fungi and algae. They forage for their meals on the trees they live on, scraping these lovely morsels off the bark. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?

Liguus snails are fairly big for snails, with their average size being about four centimeters in length, though they can get up to six centimetres long. As I mentioned before, these snails are known for their magnificently coloured shells. One species, Liguus virgineus, is commonly known as the candy cane snail because its striped shell looks a lot like a a candy cane (in snail form). Though I’m not quite sure what flavour candy cane it would be…

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A candy cane snail, also known as Liguus virgineus. Image source

There is certainly a downside to having such colourful shells: people think they are pretty, so they collect them. Over-harvesting of Liguus snails have led to a decline in the species, and habitat destruction isn’t helping the problem. It is now illegal to collect Liguus shells, so hopefully that helps keep these guys around for a while.

And I must end on a bit of a shameful note: after picking these animals to write about so I could draw one, I have not been able to complete the piece in time for this post. Rather than put a substandard and rushed picture on here, I’ll leave you with this, and I promise to get the real picture up in the next few days!

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Update: Finished my art for the blog! I’m going to leave the Sorry Snail in there because he’s pretty cute, but here’s my finished candy cane snail:

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Monarch Butterfly (genus Danaus)

Monarch butterflies have got to be some of the most well-known butterflies in the world. I remember in grade one our class raised monarchs from caterpillars to adult butterflies, to learn about metamorphosis. I also recall a play we had to do around the same time where I was a butterfly, and my mom made me these ridiculously awesome wings out of cardboard that were way more impressive than anyone else’s in the class (most of them had silly store-bought wings). The point is, that at least for me, monarch butterflies have been fluttering around in my consciousness for pretty much as long as I can remember. So it’s about time I blogged about  them.

There are three species of monarch butterfly, the North American monarch, the South American monarch, and the Jamaican monarch. they are found mainly in North and South America, though they also live in Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific islands. Sometimes these pretty travellers appear in the UK, though they usually are there by accident. Monarchs are well-known for their epic migrations, in which millions of butterflies travel south to avoid chilly winters.

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Aren’t they beautiful? Photo credit: William Warby via Wikipedia

Butterfly populations west of the Rockies head down to California for the winter, while those in the east overwinter in Mexico. Those that head to Mexico travel up to 7,778 km to get to their wintering sites — quite an accomplishment for tiny butterflies! This migration is dependent on their being available plants along the route to feed the butterflies, as well as a number of climatic factors, including favourable tailwinds, appropriate temperatures, and low precipitation. If there is an early frost, the butterflies will die.

To try and boost their survival rate, monarchs enter diapause upon commencing migration. This lets the butterflies store essential nutrients needed for the long journey, such as lipids, proteins and carbohydrates. Mating and egg development is also suppressed while the butterflies are in diapause, so they can save all their sexual energy for the spring.

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Overwintering sites for monarch butterflies. That’s a lot of little flutterbys! Image credit: bfpage via Wikipedia 

Once the butterflies get to their overwintering sites, things don’t necessarily get easier. If it’s too hot in their roosting areas, the monarch will use up their fat reserves and die before spring comes. Warm temperatures can also stimulate the butterflies to leave the wintering site too early, meaning they will die on the migration back.

This is actually true for all migratory monarch butterflies — none of them survive the migration home. But the successful ones manage to breed before dying, so their descendants can complete the trip home. In fact, it takes four generations of butterflies for the monarchs to get back north.

Monarch butterflies are pretty recognizable with their bright orange and black wings. These bright colours advertise the monarch’s poisonous nature to predators — the butterflies contain toxic cardenolide aglycones, which they get from their diet of milkweed plants. Another orange-and-black butterfly that can be easily confused with the monarch is the viceroy, which was thought to mimic the monarch’s colouring to pretend to be toxic as well. It’s now thought that both butterflies are unpalatable, and that each mimics the other. Nature is confusing…

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I’ve been wanting to get into digital painting for a while, but I’m not very good at it. Still, practice can only help, so I forced myself to do my drawing for the week digitally, and I’m pretty happy with the result!

Most monarchs have wingspans between 8.9 and 10.2 cm wide. Migrant populations have much larger wings than resident populations, as the bigger wings help the butterflies survive their long journeys. Monarchs with larger wings are much more successful during migration.

In recent years, the number of monarchs at overwintering sites has declined. This is likely due to habitat loss, herbicide use and infection by parasites. Though they are not listed as endangered, if this decline continues these beautiful butterflies could be in serious trouble.

Cover image source: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson