Goldenrod Crab Spider (Misumena vatia)

I want to start off this post with announcement: Our Wild World will be switching to one post a week, on Wednesdays, instead of posts on Wednesdays and Sundays. Things have just gotten too busy for me to keep up with posts twice a week. This was originally supposed to be a weekly blog anyway, so things are just changing to how they were meant to be.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can talk about today’s animal, the goldenrod crab spider. Goldenrod crab spiders are found in the northern hemisphere, in North America and Europe. They are found on fences, leaves, and are especially fond of flowers.

Goldenrod spiders are the largest crab spider in North America, with females growing to be 10mm excluding their legs, and males reaching 5mm. Crab spiders are named because they somewhat resemble crabs, with wide, flat bodies and long front legs that are held open.

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A goldenrod crab spider, in its white form. Image credit: A1xjlq1 via Wikipedia

Goldenrod spiders vary in colour, depending on where they live. You see, crab spiders are ambush predators, waiting on flowers for prey to come swooping by. When an unfortunate insect chances by, the spider grabs their victim with their front legs, and then injects venom into the insect. They feed mainly on flies, butterflies, grasshoppers and bees.

Though goldenrod spiders hang out on lots of different types of flowers, the ones they most favour are goldenrods (no surprise there), trillium, and white fleabane. To camouflage themselves, goldenrod spiders are either bright yellow or white, sometimes with dark markings on the abdomen.

The spiders can change between the two colours, switching between yellow and white depending on the type of flower they are on. They switch colours by secreting a yellow pigment into the body, and excreting the pigment when they want to go from yellow to white. Once the pigment has been jettisoned, however, the spiders have to remake the yellow pigment, so it takes longer to transition from white to yellow (10-25 days) than from yellow to white (6 days). The spiders change colours based on what they see, as crab spiders who have had their eyes painted do not change colour to reflect the colour of flower they are on.

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A goldenrod crab spider using its excellent camouflage to catch a wasp. Image credit: Olaf Leillinger via Wikipedia

Crab spiders rely on their expert camouflage not only to catch prey, but also to avoid becoming prey themselves. Because they don’t try and actively avoid predators, crab spiders can focus on growing and reproducing. That’s why female crab spiders have such huge abdomens — and there is a direct correlation between female weight and egg clutch size, so bigger females do better reproductively.

I’m not a huge fan of spiders, and I have a lovely memory of a crab spider parking itself on my shirt when I was a child (it was a flowery shirt). But crab spiders as whole aren’t too bad. At least they are pretty colours and don’t looks as terrifying as some species of spider.

Now, I have another announcement to make: I have started a pet and wildlife portrait business! And I’ve decided to make my blog and my art work together, so from here onwards I will be making an art piece for every animal I write about on this site. Of course, this means I had to draw a spider, which was extremely difficult for me. But I did it!

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My drawing of a goldenrod crab spider, done in ink. 

Cover image source: Roqqy via Wikipedia

Satanic Leaf Gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus)

There are a few criteria I use to pick animals for this blog. If they’re strange looking, they are eligible for a post. If they have a really bizarre name, that works too. Of course, if they’re just a very odd, crazy animal, they definitely deserve a post. But the lovely thing about today’s animal is that it hits all three categories.

Satanic leaf geckos are members of the genus Uroplatus, which contains 14 species of leaf-tailed geckos. Satanic leaf geckos certainly have the best name of the bunch, though. All leaf-tailed geckos are found in Madagascar and surrounding islands, and the satanic gecko is limited to the northern and central forests of the island. They spend most of their time in trees, for reasons that will soon become very clear.

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The tiny spot in Madagascar where satanic geckos are found. Image source: Wikipedia

Satanic leaf geckos are one of the smallest species of leaf gecko, only reaching lengths (including the tail) of 6.6 to 15.2 centimetres. Leaf-tailed geckos rely on disguise to keep them safe, and they are extremely good leaf impersonators. Satanic geckos’ tails are flattened and shaped like a leaf; some specimens even have chunks missing from their tails to mimic the appearance of a decaying leaf. Satanic leaf geckos are usually brown, though they can also be purple, orange, and yellow.

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Look how cool these guys are! Image source

These amazing reptiles are nocturnal, preferring to spend the day pretending to be leaves. This is a great strategy to avoid predators, but it isn’t the only one satanic leaf geckos use. When threatened, they will flatten themselves against other leaves, hiding their shadows to better blend into the foliage. If pressed, they will open their mouths wide to reveal bright red mouths, and when things get really bad these guys simple shed their tails to distract and confuse predators.

As you might expect for such a distinct-looking animal, these guys are very popular in the pet trade. Though they are currently a species of least concern, harvesting for the pet trade and habitat destruction are very real threats to this species. So as always, if you want one as a pet, make sure you can source it to captive breeders.

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Some leaf geckos look cooler than others, but presumably they don’t blend in as well… Image source

There is one unfortunate fact about satanic leaf geckos. Though they have an incredible name, they don’t possess the moniker ‘satanic’ for any biological trait. In fact, the name was coined in 1990 to help market these guys to the pet trade. But their crazy looks more than make up for it, these are certainly some awesome lizards.

Common Walking Stick (Diapheromera femorata)

Animals that rely on camouflage are always pretty impressive. I’ve blogged about some species that adopt amazing disguises, including the kerengga ant-like jumper, the common potoo, and the pearly wood-nymph. Today’s animal fits right in with these masters of disguise.

Common walking sticks are found in a wide range of North America. They live as far north as Alberta, as far west as New Mexico, and south into Florida. These are actually the only stick insects living in Canada, so if you see one there, you now know what species it is! They mainly reside in forests, especially those that are abundant in oak and hazelnut trees, the leaves of which are their main source of food. They are also found in fields, gardens, and yards. I guess if you have ‘common’ in your name, you should do your best to live up to it.

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So stick-like! Image credit: Andrew C. via Wikipedia 

Those of you who have seen walking sticks before know that they are pretty strange looking insects. They have extremely long and thin bodies, which are 75 – 95mm long, with females being larger than males. They have long antenna and legs, and while at rest, the front pair of legs is extended forward, to help disguise the insect. Male walking sticks are brown in colour, while females are more green.

Of course, the best way to describe walking sticks is that they look like twigs. This is their main defence against predators, and it’s quite effective. At least, I know I would have trouble finding a common walking stick in a tree. There are some animals that do feed on walking sticks, such as crows and robins. When a predator is near, walking sticks freeze and tuck their legs in, posing as an unappetizing twig until the danger has passed.

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A pair of walking stick trying to mate. Image credit: William Paxton via Wikipedia

The breeding season in common walking sticks is in the fall, so that the eggs can hatch in the spring. The mating habits of this species are not known, but in other walking stick species, males adopt a very annoying courtship style: they grab onto the back of a female and stay there until she is ready to mate — which can take weeks. Once a female’s eggs are fertilized, she drops them from the trees onto the forest floor, one egg at a time. There the eggs stay until they hatch, which can be in spring or even a year later.

While walking sticks aren’t the prettiest of insects, they are certainly excellent imitators. They are also quite common, to the point of being pests (they defoliate trees), so these neat creatures are happily doing quite well for themselves.

Treehopper (family Membracidae)

Insects are an incredibly diverse class of animals. The sheer number of insect species is both very intimidating and quite comforting — at least with insects around I know I’ll never run out of animals for this blog. Today’s family of insects, the treehoppers, contains around 3,200 species. Yup, just one family of insects has over three thousand species. Insects are crazy critters.

Treehoppers belong to the family Membracidae, which also includes insects known as thorn bugs. With such a large number of species in the family, it’s no surprise that these guys are found on every continent except Antarctica.

Treehoppers and thorn bugs are distinguished by the strange shapes of their dorsal thoraxes (more technically called pronotums). These are often modified into thorn-like protrusions, but can also be more fantastical shapes. For those species that imitate thorns, the purpose of the modified pronotum is fairly obvious: you’re not likely to be eaten if you look like a thorn. For some of the more outlandish designs (such as the ornaments found on the Brazilian treehopper, pictured below), the function is still unknown.

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A Brazilian treehopper. I don’t think those little balls on its head would be much use for camouflage… Image source: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/hml20/2015/12/02/brazilian-treehopper/

Treehoppers feed on sap, either that of hardwood trees if they are mature hoppers, or of shrubs and grasses for younger insects. They form a number of mutualistic relationships with other species, including ants, wasps and geckos. Ants are attracted to the sap treehoppers extract from plants, and often congregate around groups of treehoppers. The treehoppers benefit from the ants’ presence by gaining added protection from predators. The same sort of relationship exists between the wasps Parachartergus apicalis and Parachartergus fraternus and treehoppers, with wasps actively protecting treehopper nymphs, and in return feeding on honeydew excreted by the nymphs. It seems treehoppers are pretty popular bugs.

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Treehoppers and carpenter ants, coexisting peacefully. Image credit: Sripathiharsha via Wikipedia

Unfortunately not every creature is as kind to treehoppers; some wasps parasitize treehopper eggs and others try to eat them. To try and protect their brood, most female treehoppers lay their eggs inside the stem of plants, and some will sit on top of their eggs, waving their wings at any predators that come too close. In other species, groups of females will work together to protect their eggs.

Next time I see some thorns on a plant, I’m definitely going to check and see whether they are actually thorns, or treehoppers. Hopefully I’ll get to see some of these guys!

Cover image source: http://www.britannica.com/animal/treehopper

Chameleon (family Chamaeleonidae)

Chameleons are super cool lizards. I don’t think anyone can deny that. But I didn’t know just how awesome they are until I read up on them for this post. It always astounds me just how little I know of the animal world; no matter what I blog about I always find things I didn’t know about. That’s what makes this blog great, right?

There are around one hundred and sixty species of chameleon that live in a variety of places, including Africa, southern Europe, and western Asia. The majority of species are found in southern Africa and on Madagascar. They can live in lots of different environments, including rain forests, grasslands, mountain forests and sometimes even deserts. Most species of chameleon live in trees, and are highly adapted to this lifestyle.

Many chameleon species have ornamentation on their heads, such as the horns seen on this Jackson chameleon.  Image source: http://www.lizardtypes.com/chameleon-pictures/chameleon-picture9/

Many chameleon species have ornamentation on their heads, such as the horns seen on this Jackson’s chameleon.
Image source: http://www.lizardtypes.com/chameleon-pictures/chameleon-picture9/

One of the main things that help chameleons enjoy a happy life in the trees is the structure of their feet. The toes on each foot are fused together into two groups, making the foot look like a crab claw. These feet not only give the chameleon super funny looking feet, but also are very useful for gripping tree branches. The toes also have sharp claws protruding from them which help the chameleon climb.

Chameleons are most famous for their ability to change colour, something that they accomplish by using special cells called chromatophores. The chameleon has three layers of chromatophores in their skin: a yellow and red layer, a blue and white layer, and a melanin layer, which controls the reflection of light. By manipulation of these layers, chameleons can change into a number of different colours. Colour changes are used for a number of different purposes, not just camouflage. Some species use colour change as a signalling device – they turn darker when angry, but are light and colourful during courtship displays. Desert chameleons use colour change to help with thermoregulation, turning dark in the mornings to get as much heat as possible, and changing to a light colour during the hottest part of the day.

Some species of chameleon are really small - like this one from Madagascar. This is a juvenile, but the species maybe one of the smallest reptiles in the world.  Photo credit: Frank Glaw

Some species of chameleon are really small – like this one from Madagascar. This is a juvenile, but the species may be one of the smallest reptiles in the world.
Photo credit: Frank Glaw

Other notable features of chameleons are their strange-looking eyes and crazy long tongue. Chameleon eyes are very odd. The eyelids are fused together so that only the pupil is revealed, and each eye can move independently. This gives the chameleon full 360 degree vision. They have quite good vision, and are able to see insects from five to ten meters away. Chameleon tongues are designed for the mostly insect-filled diets that almost all species partake in. Chameleons can extend their tongue one and a half to two times the length of their bodies. This happens extraordinarily fast, with tongues able to reach prey in 0.07 seconds. Prey is stuck to the tongue once hit; the tongue has special mechanisms to hold prey in place once caught. Watching chameleons catch prey in slow motion is really cool – I suggest you google it.

With all these crazy features that make chameleons unique among reptiles, it’s no surprise that these lizards are popular pets. Other species are threatened by habitat destruction and pollution, putting many chameleons at risk of extinction. It would be a terrible shame if these quirky, colourful guys disappeared, so let’s hope we can stop that!

Cover image source: http://www.background-free.com/reptiles/lizards/chameleon_hdr.jpg.html