Halloween's Patron Saints

Halloween is just around the corner, and so to set the mood, I thought I'd, er, resurrect a few stories Audubon has done in the past on subjects sometimes associated with spookiness.

So, click off the lights, crank up The Exorcist theme music, and enjoy the thrill of:

I've met more than a few people who are "deathly afraid" of spiders. In fact, spider phobia is one of the most common specific phobias, so I guess it's no wonder that the arachnid has become an icon of All Hallow's Eve. But even if the thought of them makes your skin crawl, keep in mind that they're vital to the animal kingdom--and they weave some pretty darn cool webs. Last October, in Spiders: A Closer (Eight-Eyed) Look, Kim Connors expounded on several defining traits that make these leggy characters who they are, like their spinning abilities. "Their impressive web weaving makes spiders the Rumpelstiltskins of the arachnid world," she writes. "There are more than seven types of spider silk...[some of which] is waterproof and can rival the strength of steel."

Speaking of web spinning, in "Web Site" (November-December 2007), Les Line highlighted the discovery of a giant spiderweb in Texas that encased an area of 200 yards. An entomologist who took samples of spiders found near the site identified spinsters from about 11 arachnid families. I can't imagine what would have happened had an arachnophobe walked into that silk masterpiece.

The flutter of their leathery wings might send shivers down your spine, conjuring thoughts of fangs, blood, and vampires. But bats aren't so bad, as Peter Friederici pointed out in "Graveyard Shift" (September-October 2006; article available in print only--email editor@audubon.org to order a copy). "For generations...bats were agents of the underworld, demons with claws and teeth and naked wings, the antithesis of white-feathered angels," he writes. "But in the past two decades the bats of the Hill Country [in Texas] have benefited from an extraordinary turnaround in attitudes...They constiute a natural pest control that, working for free, helps farmers raise corn, cotton, and other vital crops." Friederici goes on to describe how researchers in Texas are studying bats to prove that they're more than a riveting wildlife spectacle.

In a related web exclusive, you can learn ways to go bat-watching, how to build a bat house, and how echolocution--a method Brazilian free-tailed bats use to hunt prey--works.

Flesh-eating Plants
If you've seen a rendition of Little Shop of Horrors, then you're familiar with the man-eating plant, Audrey II. And while she was a self-professed "mean green mother from outer space," she does have earthly counterparts. In "Savage Garden," T. Edward Nickens discussed how biologists are fighting to protect Venus flytraps and other carnivorous plants from poachers.

Rene Ebersole also reviewed in a companion web exclusive a book on meat-eating botanicals, called The Curious World of Carnivorous Plants. At the same link, you can check out a series of photos showing a wasp succumbing to the temptations of yellow pitcher plant.

Okay, so frogs don't typically inspire fear--unless you're this blogger and have an inexplicable aversion to them--but there's one worth noting in this Halloween-themed context: Budgett's frog, known by collectors as "the Freddy Krueger frog." An inhabitant of ephemeral pools in Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina, this species is "squat and stout with a huge head and an astonishingly wide mouth, [and] it lurks in the reeds like a miniature hippopotamus with only its eyes and nose above water," writes Les Line in One Picture (November-December 2007). "When confronted, as illustrated in [the One Picture photograph] by National Geographic lensman Joel Sartore, they inflate themselves like a balloon, stand on outstretched legs to appear even larger, and scream like a cat in pain. If that doesn’t work, they’ll lunge at an intruder and inflict a nasty wound with fangs on their lower jaws." Hence the species' monikor--although granted, the villain of A Nightmare on Elm Street chose to maul his victims with a metal-clawed glove.

And finally, keep an eye out for our November-December 2008 issue (soon to go online), which features a story by Nickens about creatures who make their life feeding on the dead. No, they're not zombies; as the heading indicates; rather, they're vultures, and they could be moving in to a neighborhood near you...boo!

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