Halloween is here, and whether you casually celebrate with costumes and candy or you really get into the thrill of being scared by watching horror films in the dark (not me, nope!), it is a time that we can reflect on what really scares us, (and what we might misunderstand). I polled my friends on Facebook to see what in nature gives them a fright, and I compiled the following list to share and consider. It’s natural to fear these creatures, but they all play an important part in our ecosystem and our world.
I’ll start with my own phobia: spiders! Along with scorpions, these eight-legged creatures belong to the Arachnida family. I do a lot of hiking for both work and pleasure, and it never fails—I’ll walk through a spider web (usually face-first). That silky web is so strong and sticks like crazy, but that’s not the worst part! The illogical fear I have is wondering where the spider is. Is it on my face? In my hair? About to crawl over my shoulder to say hello? But when I take a moment to relax, I realize that the spider is usually long gone. It is probably frustrated that some daydreaming hiker just destroyed the web that it worked so hard and meticulously to weave, and on which it relies to catch its next meal.
You may not want a spider or scorpion in your house, but they are actually very beneficial for keeping the insect population balanced. They feed on insects that we consider a nuisance in our home (flies, moths, and roaches), damage our crops (aphids and caterpillars), and may even carry diseases (mosquitos!). So with respect—and at a healthy distance—I celebrate the spiders who make their homes in my garden and on the trails I love.
OK, next! A lot of people mentioned cockroaches, praying mantis, and centipedes. Insects are probably the most unfamiliar, almost alien, of animals compared to humans, so I get why we have a natural apprehension towards them. There is also the fact that they outnumber us—apparently there are 200 million insects for each human on the planet! I even have memories of gently handling praying mantises as a child, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s 1997 episode “Teacher’s Pet” ruined that for me! Now I admire them from afar.
Although most us think of cockroaches as vermin, they do have a useful ecological role. Cockroaches are professional recyclers, chowing down just about anything, including dead plants and animals, and animal waste. While praying mantises may seem a bit frightening at first glance, they are actually quite interesting to watch—even turning their heads as if to watch you right back! They are also beneficial predators, eating larger insects (beetles, grasshoppers, crickets) as well as other mantids (including their own mates). And Texas red-headed centipedes are fierce! Reaching 6-8 inches in length, they have been recorded preying on invertebrates and even a variety of rodents, snakes, lizards and toads. No, I don’t want to cuddle any of these strange creatures, but insects are essential for the proper functioning of all ecosystems—as food for other creatures, pollinators, and recyclers of nutrients.
Ignore what you’ve seen in movies! OK, so they got the part about coming out at night right; bats are nocturnal. But bats do not live to terrorize humans and get caught in your hair. Seriously, bats are so cool! And we live in one of the best places to enjoy them. Did you know that Texas has the highest population of bats in the United States, and is home to the largest colony of bats in the world?
Bats are vital to our ecosystem. In addition to controlling insect populations, they help pollinate plants and spread seeds. Bat Conservation International is a great resource for learning more about bats, and how you can help protect them. Along with groups across the country, BCI just wrapped up “Bat Week” to bring awareness to the only flying mammal in the world (that’s right!). And if you have a moment, I recommend checking out the Bureau of Land Management’s #batbeautycontest on Facebook. So cute!
Snakes are another creature that are often feared or hated. I always found it interesting that the seemingly fearless Indiana Jones suffered from Ophidiophobia—the fear of snakes.
Snakes and other reptiles make up a significant portion of the food web that keeps our natural ecosystems working. Garter snakes should be at the top of the list of beneficial species you want to include in your garden. They feed on slugs, leeches, large insects, and other small rodents who eat up valuable bulbs and perennials. And if rattlesnakes are common in your area, then the kingsnake is your ally. Their diet includes rattlers and other snakes, and they are known for their immunity to venom. Although snakes are predators, they are also prey for some species. Many larger predators such as birds of prey and foxes will not hesitate to eat a snake. Since snakes have such a dynamic role within the food web, their presence is an absolute necessity in order to maintain their respective ecosystems.
They’re not your average songbird, but I find owls to be hauntingly beautiful! Over the last year I have repeatedly heard an owl in my backyard hooting at night. With a sound recording on iNaturalist, I was able to identify it as a great horned owl. (So cool!) But I have never been able to see it, and I have to be honest—the fact that you don’t know where it is, but you hear it can be quite unnerving. Like bats, these critters are nocturnal. So, is that why we find them spooky? Maybe even more so, when you consider that humans (once) faced the long, dark night without the aid of electric light.
Urban areas often suffer from an abundance of rats and mice spreading disease, and rural agricultural communities have their crops consumed and soil eroded from burrowing voles and field mice. Without owls, and other predators, rodent populations could explode and intensify the effects they produce. Owls provide free, natural, pest control and are a beautiful animal that we are lucky to have living in our ecosystem.
Mice, rats, and other rodents—I know what you’re thinking! She can have nothing good to say about them. Wrong!
Small mammals are important in almost every ecosystem. In forests, fields, and deserts, mice represent food to predators of all sizes. They link plants and predators in every terrestrial ecosystem. Weasels, foxes, coyotes, hawks, owls, skunks, bobcats, and bears all eat mice. They also play a significant role in the dispersion of wild seeds and aerate the soil.
One of my friends did mention nutria—a large rodent that looks like a beaver without the large flat tail. Nutria are not native to Texas, and like feral hogs, their overpopulation can cause a lot of problems. Nutria eat and destroy aquatic vegetation, leading to erosion and loss of habitat for other species.
Humans were listed multiple times on my poll. We can be advocates and champions of Texas nature (as seen here in this pic of a TLC guided hike), or we can be scary! When we are not a part of the balance of nature, humans harm the wildlife we love and need.
But I am hopeful that we can each make a difference today and in the future. We can learn more about these animals and try to understand their important part in our world. We can teach our children to appreciate wildlife (from afar) instead of fear them. We can also make space for these animals by working to conserve their habitat!
Join Texas Land Conservancy as we protect the land, water, and wildlife of this great state! If we do not act now, we will lose these creatures and with them a variety of ecosystem services they provide.
(Not roaches; they’ll be here forever. Probably.)
*Honorable mentions from Amber’s Facebook poll: opossums, prairie dogs, cats, feral hogs, birds, wasps, alligator snapping turtles, skunks, lizards, alligator gar, alligators, a few public figures, Chupacabra, jackalope, mountain lions, mosquitos, raccoons, and “My 8 yr old girl when she’s hungry!”