Not everything we encounter in nature is familiar — or even seemingly of this Earth. Here are a few oddities of nature — mystifying, sometimes startling creatures that may well make you stop, scratch your head, and wonder: What the heck is that?
Go for a walk in the woods anywhere in the United States east of the Great Plains, and with luck — either good or bad, depending on your fright threshold — you may encounter the devil, specifically the hickory horned devil, surely our most fearsome-looking caterpillar. It’s the larva of the royal walnut (or regal) moth, one of about 70 species of wild silkworm moths that inhabit our continent north of Mexico. Most silkworm caterpillars are large and bear odd, fleshy bumps, nubs, and/or bristles. But for sheer intimidation power, nothing beats the hickory horned devil.
When mature, the caterpillar is huge — 5 to 6 inches long and almost three-quarters of an inch in diameter, roughly the size of a frankfurter. Its fleshy body is sometimes brown but is usually green to deep aqua blue, with white and black patterns along its sides. Most startling are the pairs of long, pointed, black-tipped orange horns that curve backward over its head. Short, black spines bristle along the rest of the caterpillar.
Add to this the hickory horned devil’s habit of thrashing wildly from side to side if disturbed, and there’s little wonder why humans hesitate to pick one up. Some caterpillars possess urticating hairs that release an irritating toxin, much like that released by stinging nettle plants. But the hickory horned devil, despite its appearance, is harmless.
Life for the hickory horned devil begins when an adult female moth lays one to three eggs on a food plant, such as hickory or black walnut. Six to 10 days later, the eggs hatch into half-inch-long caterpillars, already bearing horns and spines. Over the next month, each voracious, leaf-eating larva sheds its skin four times to accommodate its ballooning body. Just before pupating, a mature hickory horned devil bores into soil, creating an underground chamber. There it will remain until it emerges in late summer as an adult. Robed in velvety, 4- to 6-inch-wide, gray-and-red-striped wings with vivid yellow spots, its names “regal” and “royal” are fitting, its transformation from beast to beauty truly majestic.
From its beady eyes to its scaly tail, the star-nosed mole sports the same neckless, streamlined body that makes all moles champion miners. Using long-clawed, spade-shaped forepaws to scoop dirt backward while pushing forward with rear feet, moles can tunnel through soil at up to a foot per minute. The star-nosed shares other traits, too: It is nearly blind, active night and day, and gobbles worms and grubs.
But you know this mole is different the instant you see the wriggling, pink, wormlike appendages encircling its snout, making it look like something from a ’50s monster movie. Its distinctive schnoz, in fact, sets it apart not only from its soil-tunneling kin, but from all other mammals: No other possesses this nasal “star,” considered by some to be the world’s most sensitive touch organ.
Each of the 22 fleshy feelers on the star-nosed mole’s snout is covered with more than 1,000 tiny sensory structures called Eimer’s organs. Other moles have about 2,000 Eimer’s organs on their noses; the star-nosed mole has 25,000-plus. These supersensitive receptors are wired to the mole’s brain with more than 100,000 large nerve fibers. Only about 17,000 such fibers connect the touch receptors in the human hand to the brain — capable of such highly tactile tasks as reading Braille. Imagine having almost six times that sensitivity focused in a single fingertip — roughly the half-inch-diameter size of the mole’s star.
As the animal searches its dark world for food, its nose constantly sweeps forward and back, touching at least 10 different places every second. Pity the earthworm or grub in its way. High-speed videos of star-nosed moles show the hyper-wired animals can detect, identify as edible, and gobble prey in less than a quarter of a second.
Star-nosed moles are also unique among moles in their ability to swim and dive. Their tunnels often lead directly to ponds and streams, where they consume aquatic insects, crustaceans, and even small fish. The semiaquatic animals occupy wetlands and moist meadows and woods from eastern Canada through much of the Northeast and Coastal East, as well as the upper Midwest and the Appalachian Mountains.
Unidentified Fungal Object
You look down, and there it is: a tiny flying saucer, complete with a star-shaped outer ring and a central circular cockpit. You almost expect to see a miniature alien nearby. As out of this world as it seems, though, the UFO you’ve spotted has a distinctly terrestrial identity: It’s an earthstar, a relative of the puffball family.
When they first emerge from the ground, these oddities of the fungal world appear to be ordinary puffballs, about the size of a golf ball or, in some species, a baseball. Earthstars and puffballs are classified as “stomach fungi,” because their spores are enclosed in a round sac. Typically, a young puffball’s insides are solid and white, but as its spores age, they darken and become powdery. When mature, a hole or tear opens in the puffball’s outer skin. When a drop of rain or gust of wind hits the surface — poof! — out blow the spores.
Earthstars, however, hold a surprise: As they mature, the outer layer peels back in four to 14 triangular sections, revealing a central inner ball containing the spores. In some species, the rays fold back flat, creating a starburst pattern, and stay there. In others, the rays continue to curl inward, pushing against the ground with enough force to lift the fungus higher, as if on stilts. This raises the inner capsule above leaf litter, giving its spores a better chance of catching a good breeze.
Even more impressive is the barometer earthstar, so named because its arms react to the amount of moisture in the air. In dry weather, which is hostile to spores, the rays fold over the capsule, protecting the contents. In humid or rainy weather, the rays open wide, allowing the spores to disperse and germinate.
Sweet Watering Holes
Sometimes the holes punched into a tree’s trunk and branches are small and round, a few randomly scattered or placed side by side. Sometimes the marks are square, larger — a quarter-inch or more — and chiseled shallowly in horizontal rows or spiraled around limbs. It’s not the work of insects or gnawing mammals, but of sapsuckers: medium-sized woodpeckers with a talent for tapping into a tree’s lifeblood.
The yellow-bellied sapsucker ranges throughout the eastern half of the United States and most of Canada. Its close western counterparts — the red-breasted sapsucker, which lives in coastal forests, and the red-naped sapsucker, which occupies mixed woods from the Great Plains westward — were considered the same species as the yellow-bellied until the 1980s. A third western species, the Williamson’s sapsucker, favors medium- to high-elevation mountain forests.
All four birds possess a sweet tooth — or, more accurately, a sweet tongue. Unlike other woodpeckers, which have long tongues with insect-snagging barbs at the end, the sapsucker has a relatively short tongue with a brushlike end for mopping up sap. In summer, the birds feed on phloem sap, the sugar- and protein-rich liquid moving down from leaves through the inner bark to feed other parts of the tree. Using their chisel-like bills, they create rows of small, square patches, peeling away the bark down to — but not into — the wood. The birds lap up sap that collects in and around these wounds. Some researchers think enzymes in sapsucker saliva act as anticoagulants, slowing a tree’s ability to seal the punctures. If wells do clog, sapsuckers gouge out replacements, and over time, a single tree can become covered with hundreds of phloem wells.
Sapsuckers use a different strategy in early spring, when trees are surging with upward-moving, watery sap in their woody tissue (xylem) that carries nutrients from the roots to developing leaves (maple sap is one example). To tap into that copious seasonal flow, the birds drill fewer, smaller, deeper holes, which are the round ones you may encounter, known as xylem wells.
Sapsucker feeding sites become ecological hubs: Ants, butterflies and other insects are drawn to the birds’ sugary oases, providing the birds with additional protein. Bats, porcupines, squirrels and many other bird species also regularly visit sap wells. Hummingbirds visit frequently and often nest nearby.
House of Predators
You’ll likely discover the brown, ridged, Styrofoam-like blob formed around a dry weed stalk or attached to a shrub or tree branch. Round or cylindrical, the size of a walnut or smaller, the object is hard but feather-light and full of air bubbles. You’ve found an ootheca: the insulated winter home, or egg case, of any of roughly 20 species of praying mantises in the United States and Canada.
At first glance, you may have mistaken it for a cocoon. But most cocoons are spun by moths, fashioned from silken threads to house the insect’s pupa, the hard-skinned resting stage of complete metamorphosis that bridges the transformation of a larval caterpillar to a winged adult. Most butterflies overwinter as pupae too, but only a few spin cocoons. Most butterfly chrysalises pass the season exposed or wrapped within a leaf.
The praying mantis’s life cycle — incomplete metamorphosis — skips the larval and pupal stages. Babies look much like miniature adults. After mating, the female lays her eggs within a frothy mass that soon hardens. Adult mantises can’t survive frigid temperatures, but the eggs inside oothecae usually do. In spring, anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of tiny mantises hatch out, lacking wings but otherwise fully equipped as predators — with appetites to match. Their first meals may be their siblings.
Within weeks, the babies will molt several times, develop wings and take their place at the top of the insect food chain — and sometimes beyond. With a swiveling head, huge compound eyes, long, barbed forelegs for snatching prey, and powerful mouthparts for gobbling it down, a praying mantis will eat any bug that moves. Large species may also devour mice, frogs, salamanders and small birds.
You may encounter them in the dark shadows of deep, moist woods, rising from the leaf litter like pale specters in a miniature ghostly choir. Throughout most of the continental United States (except the Southwest) and southern Canada, they stand in clusters, white and translucent, seemingly sculpted of wax. Each delicate, 3- to 12-inch stem bears a single, nodding, bell-shaped flower cap. Because it’s devoid of green, you may think it’s a mushroom or some other kind of fungus, but it’s a true wildflower — the plant best known as Indian pipe.
Look closely at the stems. Those scalelike structures are leaves, but the plant contains no chlorophyll and is incapable of producing its own food by photosynthesis. Instead, the Indian pipe steals sustenance from soil fungi that, meanwhile, are locked in a mutual relationship with a nearby tree. The fungi channel soil nutrients to the tree’s roots while the tree sends nourishing, photosynthesized sugars to the fungi, each helping to sustain the other. The Indian pipe benefits from both, tapping into the fungi to receive nutrients as well as a share of the tree’s sugars.
The flower’s distinctive shape, color, and mystique have earned it a variety of descriptive names. Not surprising among them, given its waxen skin, are “ghost plant” and “corpse plant.” “Ice plant” is another, not only because of the Indian pipe’s sheen, but also because the flower “melts” if you touch it, turning black and disintegrating. Because the plant was once soaked in rose water and the resulting solution applied to the eyes as a salve, others know it as “eyebright.”
With due respect to the rose and its sweet smell, an Indian pipe by any other name is still as lovely — delicate as porcelain, a mysterious, fleeting forest beauty. “I still cherish the clutch with which I bore it from the ground when a wondering child,” wrote poet Emily Dickinson, who called the Indian pipe “the preferred flower of life.”