In the desert lands of the Southwestern United States, there are stories of a monster that lives underground. A creature considered repulsive, terrifying, even lethal. Legends of these so-called monsters include claims of spitting venom, stinging tongues and a deadly poisonous breath – none of these folk tales are true.
Heloderma suspectum, it’s not the incantation of a spell casting wizard, it is the scientific name of the largest native lizard in the U.S. – the Gila monster.
With a stout body that can grow to nearly 2 feet long and they can weigh up to 5 pounds. Their skin is covered in small bumpy beaded scales known as osteoderms.
They are equipped with sharp claws which help them in digging and climbing when necessary.
Named for the Gila river basin region of Arizona where it was first discovered, Gila monsters are naturally desert dwellers. Living near dry creek beds and in semiarid rocky regions of desert scrub or grasslands.
They also seem to prefer rocky foothills and avoid open flats and agricultural areas where they would be more exposed to predators such as birds of prey and coyotes.
There are two subspecies of Gila monsters, the banded and reticulated. Each features a distinct color pattern. Banded Gilas have alternating pink, yellow or orange bands across their black body. The Reticulated Gila, has a more spotted or smeared appearance. The Gila monster’s coloring serve as camouflage in the rocky terrain and it may be a warning to potential predators.
The Gila monster is the only venomous lizard in the United States, and one of the few in the entire world.
Other venomous lizards include the Mexican beaded lizards, iguanas and monitor lizards like the Komodo dragon.
When Gila monsters bite, venom flows from glands in the lower jaw to the bottom teeth, which have grooves to carry the liquid to the victim’s body. Many times the lizard will hold onto it’s prey for several minutes with it’s powerful vise-like jaws, allowing for more venom to penetrate into the flesh.
Bites on humans are rare and while excruciatingly painful, they are not fatal. There is no antivenom for Gila monster bites.
The venomous saliva may be more useful as a defense against predators than for hunting however, most of the lizard’s prey is small enough to be subdued by the strength of the bite. In addition, venom is not needed to acquire their primary food source. Gila monsters mostly feed on bird and reptile eggs, sometimes climbing cactus to reach bird nests.
They also catch small mammals, lizards, frogs, insects and carrion. They can eat up to one-third of their body weight in one meal.
Gila monsters do not have very good eyesight; when they hunt, they use their senses of taste and smell. Similar to snakes, to track prey, the Gila monster flicks its forked tongue out to pick up scent particles in the air.
They store fat in their tail and abdomen, some lizards may eat as few as 3 or 4 times a year. During winter months they may remain exclusively in their underground burrows living off of those fat reserves. It is estimated that Gila monsters may spend up to 95 percent of their lives in underground burrows.
Most of the Gila monsters active time above ground is spent in the Spring and Summer months hunting and mating.
Male Gila monsters will often fight when competing for a female. Being immune to their own venom, their bites are more painful than deadly. These test of strength may last several hours. The strongest males win the right to breed.
Female Gila monsters will lay their eggs in shallow holes allowing the heat of the sun to incubate them. About four months later, the baby Gila monsters break out of their eggs and crawl to the surface. They are only a few inches long, but look like miniature adults with fully developed venom glands.
Gila monsters can live for 20 years or longer, their average home range is about 1 square mile.
Contrary to the old folklore claims of vicious and deadly attacks on humans, Gila monsters have actually proven to be very beneficial to people, especially those diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
A synthetic drug was developed based on a protein found naturally in the saliva of the Gila monster. The lizard hormone is about 50 percent identical to a similar hormone in the human digestive track that increases production of insulin when blood sugar levels are high. Insulin helps move sugar from the blood into other body tissues where it is used for energy.
Some Gila monsters are illegally collected for the pet trade. In 1952, the Gila monster became the first venomous animal in North America to be given legal protection.
Despite their protected status, Gila populations are shrinking due primarily to human encroachment and they are considered a threatened species.
Insects, a curious and diverse group forming over three-fourths of the world’s described animal species. One of the most notorious and fascinating is also one of the quickest and most deadly of the predatory insects and it may be found in your own backyard.
Praying Mantises are part of a very large family of insects, known as Mantids, that live in both temperate and tropical climates around the world.
The praying mantis is named for the stance they commonly adopt. The two forelegs bent and held together at an angle under it’s head. A posture that suggests the position of prayer. The name mantis comes from the Greek word for prophet.
Easily distinguished by their large, spiny forelegs and their triangular head. They have a long, slender body with the four remaining legs extending out from one end. Mantids also have leathery wings and many varieties are very good flyers, often attracted to light.
Positioned on a long “neck,” or elongated thorax, Mantids can turn their heads 180 degrees to scan their surroundings with two large compound eyes and three other simple eyes located between them. They also possess a centralized concentration of light receptors to help focus and track potential prey.
The praying mantis is an ambush hunter. With perfect camouflage coloring, the mantis can seem almost invisible when perched on a leaf or stem. It’s ability to perform lightning fast strikes enable it to easily snatch an unsuspecting victim, some much larger than itself. When attacking it takes the mantis only 50-70 milliseconds to strike, twice as fast as the blink of an eye.
They possess highly specialized front legs that contain long sharp spines that allow them to pierce and then hold onto their prey. The praying mantis bites the neck of its prey to paralyze it and then begins to devour it, usually head first.
They eat only live food, their diet includes all sorts of insects, spiders, frogs, lizards and even mice.
The praying mantis will also eat others of its own kind. This cannibalism is often seen in the mating behavior of the adult female, who sometimes eats her mate just after, or even during, mating. According to the Entomology Department at the University of Kentucky, the body of a decapitated male is capable of completing the mating, when complete the female will finish eating the male.
Females regularly lay hundreds of eggs in a frothy liquid, called an ootheca (ō-ə-ˈthē-kə) , that turns into a hard, protective shell. This helps them survive during the wintertime. The eggs hatch in springtime when other small insects are a plentiful food source.
Baby mantis, called nymphs, hatch looking much like tiny versions of their parents. The young mantids will eat many different types of insects that are about their own size or smaller. Being cannibalistic they will eat their siblings when food is scarce.
Growing mantids undergo a gradual metamorphosis. As they grow, the wings develop on their backs. With each molt the wing buds increase in size. Nymphs will shed many times before they are full grown. It takes an entire summer or growing season for mantids to mature to adulthood.
There are many species of mantids found throughout North America, some were introduced from Europe and Asia in the 19th Century as an attempt to control pests.
A common native species in the United States is the Carolina Mantis. Varying in color from light-green to medium-gray the Carolina Mantis is normally between 1-1/2″ and 2-1/2″ long. These mantises range from the eastern and central United States through Central America and into northern South America. Carolina Mantis nymphs have the ability to alter their color to match their habitat each time they molt. Adult male Carolina Mantises are strong fliers and will actively stalk their prey. Adult female Carolina Mantises have shortened wings and are heavier bodied; they cannot fly so they lie in wait to ambush their prey.
One of the introduced species, the Chinese Mantis varies in color from light-green to brown and is normally between 3 and 4.5 inches long. A large and powerful insect, adult Chinese Mantises are known to catch and kill hummingbirds and other small birds.
Two of the largest mantids are the Mega Mantis of West Africa and the African Stick Mantis which can reach a lengths over 6 inches.
Many of the Asian and African species possess colorful patterns on their wings and legs that resemble many of the tropical flowers in their regions. Their colors are so well blended among the plant life that many nectar gathering insects will often mistakenly land on the mantis.
The coloration of the praying mantis not only helps it sneak up on its prey but also provides the insect with a means to hide from its primary predators, birds and bats.
In addition to coloration, some species of mantis possess a hollow chamber in their body. It has been discovered that these chambers provide the mantis with a means of detecting bats. While flying, the mantis will often hurl itself to the ground in a spiral when it hears certain frequencies of sound in order to avoid the incoming bats.
Praying mantises are terrific pest exterminators. They keep down the population of bugs that are a threat to farming and backyard gardening. Mantids are available commercially and egg cases can be purchased during the winter months. The egg cases are placed in the garden and the nymphs hatch in the spring. If you want to encourage mantids, you should limit pesticide use and allow some vegetation to grow to provide cover.
There are more than 2,300 species of mantises worldwide. With a huge diversity of size, shape and color they all have one thing in common, they are deadly predators.
The ocean. Teeming with an abundance of life from all parts of the animal kingdom. From tiny phytoplankton to sea birds to the largest whales, but the one type of animal that dominates the underwater world is of course, fish.
Perhaps the most recognizable of all ocean fish is the hammerhead shark. It’s characteristic wide T-shaped head with eyes and nostrils located on the outer edge make their profile unmistakable.
Hammerheads can be found in the deep water of the open ocean but are more commonly found in warm temperate and tropical waters along the continental shelf and coastal regions throughout the world.
Currently 9 different species of hammerhead are recognized. These include the smooth, scalloped and Carolina hammerheads as well as the bonnet head and winghead varieties.
Measuring up to 20 feet long and an average weight over 500 pounds. The largest species of hammerhead shark is known as the Great Hammerhead. The largest great hammerhead recorded, found off the Gulf coast of Florida weighed nearly 1,000 pounds.
The great hammerhead is dark brown to light grey on the top, fading to a lighter white on it’s underside, a form of disruptive coloration. Their skin is covered by small diamond-shaped blades known as dermal denticles or “skin teeth”, also called placoid scales.
Like all sharks and rays, hammerheads have small pores distributed along the ventral surface of their head. The pores, known as the “ampullae of Lorenzini” are gel-filled and serve as highly sensitive electrical receptors that are used to detect the electrical signals emitted by potential prey items – including those buried in the sand.
The hammerhead species get their common name from their iconic, unusual shaped head called a “cephalofoil” which means “head-wing” in Greek. It’s exact purpose is still up for debate.
Some researches believe it may provide extra lift and allow hammerheads to make sharper turns than other sharks.
Their wide set eyes on the ends may give them a wider field of view and possibly enable them to see depth through 3-D vision.
The distribution of receptors across the wide head may act as a sort of “metal detector” to find food buried in the sandy sea floor.
Grooves along the front edge of the cephalofoil help channel and direct fish oils and blood traces into the shark’s nose and nasal cavity – called nares. Inside the nares, skin tissues act like an air filter helping the shark decipher the prey and it’s location.
Great hammerheads prey upon a wide variety of marine life, from invertebrates to bony fishes and sharks. They seem to prefer stingrays and other batoids. Many hammerheads are found with sting ray barbs stuck in their snout, it is believed they may be immune to the venom. The shark may use it’s cephalofoil to pin rays down while feeding.
Great hammerheads are also thought to be cannibalistic, eating individuals of their own species if food is scarce.
Each species of hammerhead have slightly differently looking heads: the scalloped and smooth varieties have a slightly rounded or tilted shape. The scalloped species are distinguished further by several indentations along the front. The great hammerhead possesses a straighter, flatter head shape with a single center indentation while the bonnet head variety have a more shovel shaped head.
Great hammerheads tend to travel alone and are considered a highly migratory species. During summer months they travel to cooler waters to feed.
The scalloped hammerheads, the most common hammerhead species, have been seen in large schools numbering more than several hundred animals. Some researchers believe this behavior offers protection for female sharks from overly aggressive males who remain on the outer edges of these school formations.
Like some other shark species such as bull sharks, blue sharks and mako, hammerhead young first hatch from their eggs inside the females belly and remain for about 11 months when as many as 50 pups may be born.
Great hammerheads are believed to live 20 to 30 years and while larger sharks will prey on juveniles, there are no major predators of the adult great hammerheads.
Great hammerheads and smooth hammerheads are highly sought after by the fin industry. Used in Asia for the popular shark-fin soup, often sharks are caught, the fins removed and the body simple discarded at sea. Several countries including the United States and Australia, have adopted shark finning bans. In the state of Florida, where sport fishing is popular, it is illegal to kill hammerhead sharks in coastal waters.
For an opportunity to see hammerheads up close, California’s Monterrey Bay Aquarium is home to a scalloped hammerhead. The only great hammerhead shark currently on exhibit in the United States can be seen near Philadelphia at Adventure Aquarium, located in Camden New Jersey.
As apex predators, sharks like the hammerheads play an important role in the ecosystem by maintaining the species below them in the food chain. The loss of sharks has actually led to the decline in coral reefs, seagrass beds and even the loss of commercial fisheries. Without sharks, larger predatory fish, like groupers, will soon devour most of the herbivores, this results in macroalgae blooms choking out the coral and the health of overall reef system suffers. A healthy ocean depends on a thriving population of sharks.
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