Field Stories: The Stuff of Nightmares

I believe that almost all entomologists have at least one arthropod or other animal that they really don’t like and find disturbing on some primal level.  Several of my best entomologist friends, including one who thinks ticks are the best animals ever, think roaches are the most vile beasts on Earth.  A herpetologist friend of mine gleefully handles rattlesnakes but completely loses her nerve when faced with a scorpion.  I know several biologists who are terrified of grasshoppers and other jumping insects, and even a few who really hate moths.  I personally don’t have any problem with roaches, or most other insects for that matter.  But there is one arthropod that I find incredibly disturbing, and that animal is the centipede.

Something about a centipede screams “This is an unnatural spawn of the devil!” to me.  I really, really hate them.  REALLY hate them.  They terrify me beyond almost any other animal.  I am not a scream at the top of my lungs kind of gal, so there’s rarely girlie shrieking involved when I come across one, but serious chills do run down my spine and I always involuntarily shudder.  Just thinking about them makes me anxious!

Because I dislike them so much, it figures that I live in a place that has some of the biggest centipedes in the world.  Meet Scolopendra heros:

Scolopendra heros

Scolopendra heros

This beast is also known as the giant redheaded centipede, which is yet another example of biologists giving organisms highly descriptive (aka, uncreative) names.  As you can see, this is an arthropod with many legs, but only one pair per segment, which makes it a centipede.  This thing is about 6-8 inches long, so it’s giant.  And it has a red head, hence redheaded.  I feel like I should think this centipede is beautiful and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who does.  The colors really are fantastic!  And the ones in Arizona have even more red on them than the individual pictured here (there are several different color variations in this species).  Still, these are things of nightmares for me.  I think the problems I have with these animals are based on the fact that they are venomous (they’re predators and use their venom to subdue their prey) and they are fast.  Very fast.

Now that you know a bit more about these centipedes, allow me to tell you a story about an encounter I had with one.  If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you’ve probably read about my field site already.  One day a few years ago, my advisor and I were made our daily summer trip to the pond to collect water bug eggs.  I strapped my waders on and climbed out into the pond as usual.  However, the water was remarkably clear that day and I could actually see all the way down to the bottom for the first time ever.  What I saw there, however, was horrifying: a Scolopendra heros sitting on the bottom of the pond, right by one of the sticks I needed to check for eggs.  The conversation with my advisor went something like this:

Me: (Yells to advisor) Whoa!  There’s a Scolopendra on the bottom of the pond here!
Advisor: That’s great!  Pick it up and bring it over here!
Me: Oh hell no!  I’m not picking it up!
Advisor: Chris, don’t be a wimp.  Pick it up!
Me: No!  I don’t think it’s dead.  (Pokes it with a stick to see if it moves.)
Advisor: It’s not moving?
Me: No.  (Poke, poke)
Advisor: If it’s not moving and it’s on the bottom of the pond, it’s probably dead.  Just pick it up!
Me: (A bit of hysteria creeps into my voice) No!!!  I’m not picking it up, even if it IS dead!  I hate these things!  But I really don’t think it’s dead…  (Poke, poke)
Advisor: (Shakes head sadly, conveying his utter disappointment at my squeamishness.  I have clearly failed his test of entomological robustness.)

In a bout of sheer wussiness, I eventually consented to pick the thing up with a stick.  I draped it’s limp body over the very far end of the three or four foot long stick and held it as far away from my body as I could, just in case it suddenly came back to life.  I was terrified I would get stuck in the mud and fall over and I could just see the demon spawn I was carrying flying through the air and landing on my head.  But, I made it to the shore unscathed and made my advisor hold a bag open for me (which he did only after making fun of me again) so I didn’t have to get the centipede close to my unprotected hands.  I was in the process of making an insect collection for a K-12 outdoor education center and knew it would make a good addition to my collection.  My advisor handed the bag to me and I quickly tied it shut.  I carried it back to the car holding it out from my body and grabbing only the tiniest part of the corner furthest from the centipede so I could keep it as far away from me as I could.  I kept looking at it and expecting it to wake up.  I was absolutely convinced that it was still alive.  I happily tossed it in the plastic box with my waders and slammed the lid on, thankful the centipede would be riding home in the back of the truck while I was safely in the cab.

When I got home, I carefully carried my wader box inside and pulled the lid off slowly, carefully peering in and expecting to see a lifeless centipede inside.  What I saw instead was exactly what I had feared!  The centipede was indeed still alive and was now running frantically around the bag.  I imagined that it was now a very angry venomous creature trapped in a very thin film of plastic that I was sure it could find a way out of.  I had to do something and fast!  My worst nightmare was about to come true: a livid centipede bearing down upon me across my kitchen counter while I was paralyzed in fear and helpless to prevent its leaping onto my face.  (Okay, so I have a vivid imagination!)  I grabbed the corner of the bag, the one now holding a squirming, probably unhappy centipede, and tossed it into the freezer, slamming the door shut before slumping against the fridge door and sighing in utter relief.  I conquered the menace that was the evil centipede!  And I was preserving it for a good cause, thereby killing two birds with one stone.

Or I would have been killing two birds with one stone except I’ve never taken it back out of my freezer.  I’m too creeped out by it to retrieve it from it’s frigid habitat.  Knowing it’s in there still is bad enough (and I carefully avoid it when rooting around in there for food), but actually getting it out, facing it’s horribleness once again?  Well, that’s just not going to happen willingly.  The real question is, when I eventually move, will I have the courage to take the centipede out and finally add it to a collection, or will someone from the rental company be in for a very nasty surprise?  I can’t say for sure until that day comes…


Text copyright © 2010

Field Stories: Attack of the Giant Water Bug!

Today I’m going to share a story about an experience I had at my field site a few years ago.  It’s about a young scientist trying to do field work for her Ph.D. and a determined father giant water bug who took great offense at her attempt to remove his eggs from the pond for study in her lab.  This particular story has the makings of an excellent bad, B-grade horror movie, so I hope you will enjoy it!

For those of you who don’t know, Arizona is an area of high traffic for illegal immigrants.  We get all kinds of people wandering into our country from other locations, stumbling through the desert looking for a better life in America.  Unfortunately, it means we also get some hefty drug trafficking.  The area where I do my field work is a high-traffic area, so I always make sure I have someone with me when I do field work.  I also like to have another person with me in case I get stuck in the mud in bottom of the pond and need to be pulled out (see my post about my field site if you don’t know why this is important!).  On the day in question, I had a friend with me, another environmental physiologist who works on insect eggs.  I’ll call her K for the sake of this story.

me in Papago in wadersK and I made the 45 mile drive out to the pond.  We chatted about work and our lives on the way there and were in a generally good mood by the time we arrived.  I put on my very stylish chest waders (see image at right), and wandered out into the pond.

When I pull sticks out of the pond, it is common to find the father clinging to the bottom of the stick.  They frequently sit still for only a few seconds before dropping back into the pond.  Occasionally, one will hold on a bit longer and I’ll have to shake the stick a bit to get him off.  The emergent brooders are well-known for protecting the eggs they have fathered.  If you tap a stick with eggs on it, you can frequently get the water bug to rush out of the water and up the stick in an attempt to protect his eggs from predators.   They can actually be rather ferocious.

On this particular day, I pulled a stick out that had a male attached to it.  He didn’t come loose with my usual shaking method, so I wasn’t sure what to do.  I had a handful of sticks with eggs in the other hand, so I couldn’t just push him off the stick.  I poked him with one of the sticks in my other hand, certain that he would be startled and fall into the water.

Instead, he crawled up the other stick.  Fast.  Right toward my hand.  Doing that “How dare you mess with my kids!” behavior.  I started shaking the stick really hard, trying to knock him off, but he still kept coming for me.  Not wanting to be bitten (and not wanting him to screw up the eggs I’d harvested when he crawled over them), I whacked him gently with another stick and he fell into the water with a satisfying “plunk.”  I waded back out of the water with my sticks, and knelt on the bank to trim them down.

If you thought the story was over at this point, think again!  A few minutes into trimming sticks, I felt something scrabbling around my neck area, scrambling over the straps of my waders toward my head.  Something big and strong.  Something that felt suspiciously like a certain angry giant water bug that had already tried to attack me…  I asked K, “Whoa!  What’s on my neck?” as I reached up and flicked whatever was on my neck off.  I was horrified to see that what fell to the ground WAS the giant water bug!  He’d climbed all the way up my waders and had ended up inches from my jugular!  He was clearly out for my blood.  :)  I may have let out a little shriek of horror and K laughed.  She knew full well that she would have done exactly the same thing if it had come after her.

Site of this adventure!

Site of this adventure!

So I grabbed the persistent little guy and tossed him back into the pond, thinking that was that.  I went back to stick trimming and egg counting, but a few moments later, I heard K laughing.  “He’s coming back!” she said.  I didn’t believe her, but I turned around anyway, ready to be a sucker since she’d already made fun of me that morning.  Sure enough, there was the darned water bug, climbing out of the pond, onto the shore, and headed right for me.  Again.  Now this is where I think the B-grade horror movie would come in.  If the water bug was a couple of feet long, it would have been perfect – me sitting on the ground, helplessly scrambling to get up, while the giant water bug bore down on me!  You’d see him crawl onto me and a few scenes later, some random hiker would find my dead body, sucked completely dry, as ominous music played in the background.

In reality, I picked the bug back up and chucked him back into the pond.  AGAIN.  Surely he was finished trying to exact his revenge for stealing his eggs from him.  Hadn’t I clearly demonstrated that I was the bigger, stronger opponent in this confrontation?

Apparently not.  A few minutes later, the bug came for me again.  He crawled out of the pond once more and headed straight for me.  This time, I was finished with my sticks and was watching the shore.  I saw him emerge and let him get a couple feet out of the water, marveling at his tenacity, before I picked him back up, yet again, and tossed him back into the water,  yet again.  If there was an award for the most protective giant water bug father, this would clearly be the winner.  He was quite determined.

K and I packed our stuff up and went back to the car.  Who knows.  The bug may have crawled out again and started looking for me one more time, but we weren’t there to see it.  We joked all the way home about the incident.  We kept imagining the bug clinging to the back of the seat, ready to reach his raptorial forelegs around the headrest as he grappled with me, his sworn enemy, as I drove home.  That was one persistent little bug!

In the horror movie version of this incident, the giant bug would have indeed clung to the back of the seat, then slipped out of the car and into the house while I unpacked my gear.  He would waited until dark, after I’d fallen asleep, then attacked.  Neighbors would notice that they hadn’t seen me for a few days and call the police.  An officer would calmly open the door and jerk back in horror as a gigantic beast rushed past him, eager to find new victims as he wandered the streets of Tucson…


Text and images copyright © 2009

Field Stories: Collecting Giant Water Bug Eggs for Study

I’ve found that there are two types of field biologists.  There are those that have cushy, fabulous research positions that everyone is jealous of.  The husband of one of my good friends works with squirrels in Arizona.  He spends a good part of the summer on top of a gorgeous mountain hiking through the forest studying adorable little frolicking squirrels.  If you’re an outdoorsy person, this job is one little slice of heaven.  His wife, on the other hand, is my coworker for one of my jobs.  We are on the other end of the spectrum – field biologists who tell people what we do and watch them cringe in horror or utter disgust.  We’re the ones that get questions like, “Ugh!  Why would anyone want to do that?”

In order to stay sane, I find that biologists like us revel in the intensity or relative digustingness of our work.  We share stories and try to one-up each other so that we can convince people that we have the worst field assignments ever.  We are martyrs to science, gosh darn it!  Many of our conversations involve the words, “You think that’s bad?  Let me tell you about MY field site!”  So before I get to my post on why brooding is bad for male water bugs, allow me to tell you about my lovely field site and my experiences there.

This is the pond at my field site:

My field site!

My field site!

Isn’t it lovely?  Let me tell you about this pond.  This is what’s considered a “cattle tank” in Arizona.  If you’re not from AZ, you probably think a cattle tank is a round metal container that is filled with water from which cattle can drink.  I certainly did before I moved here.  No, in Arizona, cattle tanks are little man-made ponds.  Farmers basically pile up dirt at the low point of a natural depression to create a pond that fills with water during rains.  My particular pond collects an amazing amount of overland flow.  It can go from almost empty to completely overflowing in a single rain event, so it’s a great example of a cattle tank.

All that green stuff on top is algae.  Because it is fed by overland flow, the water brings a lot of organic materials, soil, and nutrients with it as it flows into the pond.  When the pond first fills up, the water is opaque brown from all the dirt.  But when you have a body of water with a whole lot of nutrients in it, you get algae.  LOTS of algae.  If you get into my pond, you come out green!

And then there’s the livestock.  This pond is used by cows and horses.  They don’t seem to have any problems with using the pond as both their drinking water and their toilet.  If you get into the water, you have to watch for floating road apples and cow patties and you smell like urine for the rest of the day, sometimes even after you shower.  It’s lovely.  And all that stuff the livestock dump in the pond contributes to the algae growth, making it even more green!

Finally, there is the mud.  Between the cow and horse “contributions,” the dirt flowing into the pond with the rainwater, the algae that dies and falls to the bottom, and the decaying plants and wood that fall in, the mud in the bottom of the pond is sticky, stinky, and deep.  Every time you take a step, you sink into the mud, almost up to your knees.  It’s hard work moving through this sort of mud.

Did I mention the tempature of this pond?  The water is really warm, a lot warmer than you would expect it to be from the air temperature.  All the cows and horses and other lovely things that are in the water promote the growth of bacteria.  The water is so hot in part due to the fermentation and other bacterial processes that are occurring in the water.  All those chemical reactions produce heat, so the water becomes warmer than it would be if it were clean.

There’s nothing  quite like getting into hot, stinky, opaque green-brown water and sinking into putrid mud, let me tell you.  I dread getting into my pond.  If I have to meet with people after I go to my field site, I have to warn them that I’m going to my field site in case I show up covered in mud and scented with urine.  I complain about it to my collagues and definitely drag out the list of offenses my field site provides in those one-upping conversations – and often win!  So, why do I do it?  This is why:

Lethocerus medius

Lethocerus medius brooding eggs

My pond is a fantastic place to collect Lethocerus medius eggs!  If you recall from my post on giant water bug parents, Lethocerus are emergent brooders and lay their eggs on emergent vegetation.  This means the bugs require emergent vegetation if they want to reproduce, and Lethocerus medius is no exception.  It is worth putting up with the nasty conditions of my pond for this reason: there are tons of Lethocerus medius, but almost no emergent vegetation!  This means there are lots and lots of bugs looking for places to lay eggs, but almost nowhere to lay them. This creates great conditions if you need to collect eggs from a Lethocerus species, which are notoriously hard to breed in the lab.  All you need to do to get eggs is provide artificial emergent vegetation.

We use sticks clipped from desert broom bushes, strip the leaves off, and then I wade into the pond and stick them into the mud:

Artificial emergent vegetation

Artificial emergent vegetation

Once you’ve put the sticks in, the bugs are more than happy to use them for mating.  During the right time of the year (monsoon season for this species and location), if you come back the next day you are likely to find clutches of eggs attached to the sticks.  I pull the sticks out and bring them back to the lab with me so I can do experiments with the eggs.  Then we go back the next day to get some more.

In spite of the general ick factor of my field site, it is completely worth it to use this pond.  There are very few ponds that have this little emergent vegetation and collecting eggs anywhere else would be a whole lot harder to do.  It is also definitely easier than setting up a brooding operation in the lab.  It might not be glamorous and I’m waiting for the day I fall in head first, but the results of my experiments are exciting enough to keep me going back.  Hooray for the thrill of scientific discovery!


Text and images copyright © 2009