What is it about horror movies and monsters that intrigues us so much? I certainly love a good scare and revel in giant, blood-thirsty creatures tearing up naive teens on the big screen. And that’s what Halloween is all about – celebrating the dark side of life (i.e. death). However, I think this love affair with morbidity is the result of us being relatively large animals at the top of the food chain. I guarantee that if we were the size of most insects, horror films would be labeled documentaries. These organisms face monsters we cannot ever imagine.
The following are portraits of a few of the terrors that await our tiny, spineless friends (along with a few we or other vertebrates should be afraid of, despite their diminutive size).
Spiders: Scary to us, deadly to our small neighbors
Spiders are a universal symbol of creepiness. They have all the right ingredients: usually hairy, lots of eyes and legs, and (of course) large venomous fangs. Although most people have never been bitten by a spider (despite their commonness), we still intrinsically fear them. Our encounters with them rarely end up threatening our existence, but we still shriek when we walk through a web or see one race across our floor. This all seems like an overreaction compared to what insects (and even other spiders!) face when encountering these master killers. Whether caught in a sticky web of death, or run down and pounced on with powerful fangs, our small cousins have it bad sometimes…
Think cozy leaves are safe? Think again!!!
Say you’re a small arthropod happily living on the ground in someone’s backyard. Your home is among small plants and you curl up at night in a nice little fallen leaf. You feel safe. That is until a vicious, glowing hunter stumbles upon you by crashing into your “bedroom” and sucking all the fluids out of your body. I am talking about a baby firefly. “But Matt,” you say “fireflies are lovely creatures!” Not their larvae, which are crocodile-like eating machines that hunt in the leaf litter around your home.
If you are lucky enough to avoid firefly progeny, you may be devoured (but first jabbed with fang-like legs containing a powerful toxin) by a snaking, dragon-like creature with dozens of legs. Although soil centipedes are nothing but a small thread to humans, to tiny arthropods they must be like a giant terror train. Imagine outrunning something with that many feet!
Even if the centipede doesn’t get you, there’s a chance that you’ll end up in the jaws of something else just as horrific. For instance, the large mandibles of a scary Scarites ground beetle could easily sever one end of you from the other. You may even still be awake when it starts mashing you up for dinner! Time to run again…
You have finally managed to outrun that firefly larva, centipede and ground beetle, and have shifted to a nice strolling pace. You think you’re safe – then an instant later something has grabbed you from out of nowhere and pulled you down a deep dark hole in the ground. You are now doomed to become food for a trapdoor spider who will – no matter how much you fight – likely be the last thing you see.
So you’re not an arthropod? There are still things that can make your skin crawl or crawl on your skin…
Yes, I know – if you are reading this you are not a small arthropod (or even a large one for that matter). That isn’t always going to save you and your back-boned kin from certain little terrors. For instance, if you are an adorable squirrel living the life in someone’s oak tree, chasing other squirrels and fattening up on acorns, you may notice a small growth developing on your side. Little do you know that a small bot fly maggot (Oestridae) has crawled under your skin to feed painfully on your tissues and juices. This maggot will eventually grown to an inch long, or about 10% of your body length. To put that into perspective, it would be like a naked, spiny, legless hamster living under your skin! Fortunately, these larvae rarely kill their host, but the pain, discomfort and stress would be tortuous.
Lastly, what’s Halloween without blood?! As much as we try to keep it inside us, sometimes it is spilled out and other times it is sucked out. The latter is particularly disgusting and irritating, especially when we think about our common, everyday blood-sucking foes: mosquitoes, bed bugs and fleas. Most of these are small monsters that are more of an annoyance than scary. However, there is one blood sucker around that IS pretty scary. At an inch long, the Eastern blood-sucking conenose bug, or kissing bug (Reduviidae: Triatoma sanguisuga), is fairly large. That means more blood needed for a good meal. These bugs are not only scary large, but in many places they can transmit Chagas disease (Trypanosoma cruzi) by excreting infected feces near the bite, which then may be scratched into the wound. Luckily (1) these bugs usually just bite rodents in our area, and (2) the ones we have here are polite enough to defecate away from our face (or wherever the bite is). Still, I wouldn’t want to donate any of my blood to these creatures.
Sleep tight – don’t let the kissing bugs bite!