We sure do love our cute and cuddly animals, but nature has a dark side too. Since it’s spooky season, it’s the perfect time to celebrate this dark side.
Some species look like Halloween decorations or props, and some engage in behaviors that seem too scary or freaky to be anything but the stuff of make believe. All are real, however. And while some of these behaviors may seem unnatural to us, it’s perfectly normal for them. It’s all part of how they survive in the world.
Read on to learn more about these species that represent the dark side of nature and seem to fit right in at this time of year.
Bats want to suck your blood, right? Most of the bats in the world want nothing to do with your blood, but vampire bats do actually exist. But of the more than 1,400 bat species in the world, only three are vampire bats.
Words to know
Dramatic: Sudden and striking.
Exoskeleton: The rigid external covering on some invertebrate animals.
Noxious: Harmful, poisonous or unpleasant.
Transmit: To cause something to pass from one place or person to another.
These blood-eating bats live primarily in Central and South America, but they have been recorded in extreme southwest Texas. You won’t find them as far north as Illinois, though. And they don’t suck blood. They drink it. They use their front teeth to make small incisions and then lap up the blood. It’s like how a dog drinks water.
Even in places where vampire bats are known to live, humans aren’t a favorite target. They mostly feed from cows and horses. They don’t drink enough blood to harm their animal hosts, but they can transmit diseases and cause infections.
A haunting owl scream
The hoot of an owl might catch you off guard if you hear it in the night, but there are other owl sounds that are much more spooky than the innocent hooting of a great horned owl. Barn owls have a call that sounds like a haunting scream, and it is definitely enough to stop you dead in your tracks. Take a listen.
Males call more often than females, and they use their shrieking screams to communicate with other owls and to try to keep predators and other threats at bay. Barn owls also hiss at animals that try to intrude on their nests.
In addition to their blood-curdling scream, barn owls have a softer, less intimidating call that is called a purring call. Both males and females purr, but for different reasons. Females purr to beg for food from a male, while males purr to invite a female to check out a potential nesting site.
Some of the fungi we find popping up each fall look like they were invented as Halloween decorations. Probably the best example of this is dead man’s fingers, which look exactly like they sound. They look like black or gray fingers growing up from decaying wood. These finger-like fungi typically begin growing in summer. As they grow, they begin to look more and more like dead man’s fingers.
Dead man’s fingers aren’t the only freaky fungus. Jack-o’-lantern mushrooms proclaim their Halloween-like appearance right in their name. They also sometimes glow a greenish color in the dark.
And let’s not forget about bleeding tooth fungus, which is also called devil’s tooth fungus and sometimes a less sinister sounding strawberries and cream fungus. When it’s a fully mature adult, bleeding tooth fungus is an ordinary-looking beige mushroom. While it grows, it looks as though it is bleeding from its pores.
A bloody defense
Plenty of animals have unusual defense mechanisms. Opossums play dead, and skunks have a potent weapon at their disposal. Neither of these familiar creatures is as dramatic as the greater short horned lizard. These lizards, which live in the deserts of North and Central America, can shoot blood from their eyes to keep predators from attacking.
They can shoot the blood up to 3 feet by letting blood pressure build up behind their eyes. As you might expect, the squirting blood is a pretty successful defense mechanism.
The squirting blood gimmick isn’t the only trick they have. Their blood contains a chemical noxious to coyotes and wolves. They can also puff themselves up to twice their size, and they are known to play dead as well.
Zombies might just seem like characters in horror movies, but so-called zombie ants do exist thanks to a fungus that can infect the insects and take over their behavior. Lucky for us here in Illinois, this fungus, called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, only lives in tropical forests.
The fungus is thought to attach its spores to an ant’s exoskeleton. Once it makes its way into the ant’s body, it can slowly begin to control its behavior. Eventually, the ant will leave its nest to move into a more humid spot that benefits the fungus.
Once inside the ant, the fungus eats its organs, eventually killing the insect. After it dies, the fungus can send its fruiting body out of the ant’s head, allowing it to release its spores.
Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.