Do you enjoy spending time in nature and seeing cool animals? Many people are familiar with some of the wildlife that may be encountered during a hike in the woods. You might expect to see deer or turkeys or raccoons or squirrels. However, there are smaller members of the animal world that are quite fascinating and can be missed if you’re not looking carefully. There are insects that look like sticks, lizards that can lose their tails, and harmless butterflies
that mimic poisonous species! I’m surprised there isn’t a Spiderman villain that was created from a radioactive butterfly bite. Believe it or not, the first female black superhero in the comics was called “The Butterfly”! Anyway, it’s time to learn about some trail treasures!
My current job at the World Bird Sanctuary involves managing the restoration of their trails. I’m engaging in the removal of invasive species and helping create an environment which fosters growth of native plants and attracts wildlife. The goal is to provide an enjoyable experience for the public and encourage them to walk the trails and interact with nature. One of my first steps in this process was to remove invasive bush honeysuckle, which releases chemicals into the soil that inhibits the growth of native plants and restricts biological diversity. While pulling out honeysuckle bushes, I often come across interesting little creatures in the forest understory. There are plenty of ants and spiders crawling across the leaf litter. Sometimes I find a turtle buried in the dirt or a frog hopping by a tree. I also occasionally find walking sticks, insects that actually look like sticks! Some species even have body parts which resembles leaves or twigs. These creatures are part of the Phasmatodea order of insects, and have a wonderful built-in camouflage system that enables them to escape detection from predators, unless you’re a predator that enjoys munching on sticks. Perhaps beavers occasionally eat walking sticks on accident?! Walking sticks are often colored brown or green to blend in with their surroundings and are quite widespread across the world. Members of the largest species can grow up to a foot and stretch out to almost two feet when you include the legs!
Walking sticks that I’ve encountered while doing trail restoration. The one on the left actually climbed into my shirt pocket!
The skink family is quite diverse, with over 1500 species spread across the world! Skinks are lizards that can often be found in forests, mountains, deserts, shopping centers, or even running around houses! One common species in the U.S. is the Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), named for the distinct pattern of lines across its back. Juveniles of this species (and some other species) have beautiful blue tails. Five-lined Skinks grow to about 5-8 inches long, and are generally found in forests or forest edges with plenty of natural cover, such as rocks, fallen logs, bark, and leaf litter. These skinks prey on a wide variety of insects, and will occasionally consume small vertebrates such as frogs and other lizards. Like many other lizard species, Five-lined Skinks can voluntarily break off segments of their tail in order to confuse or distract a predator! The tail will eventually regenerate and the skink may survive another day.
A tiny taste of skink diversity. Top left – male Five-lined Skink. Top right corner – Juvenile. Below that is a picture by J.J. Harrison of a Blue-tongued Skink in Australia. Bottom = Skilton’s Skinks.
Butterflies are interesting and colorful creatures. These animals start life as caterpillars and morphs into wonderful flying insects. My next blog will look at the often overlooked wonders of the world of butterflies. Be prepared to learn about poisonous species, species that use mimicry, and butterflies that get drunk! Hopefully this post has piqued your interest into looking for forest creatures like walking sticks and skinks when you hike in the woods. Sometimes these creatures can also be found in your backyard! If you see a small lizard running for cover across some rocks or around your house, you may be observing a skink. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden craving for pretzel sticks.
Lord Howe Island pretzel stick insect, sometimes called a “land lobster”.