Nature’s Defense Department, and Halloween 26 Oct 2016

Have you ever wondered why so many animals bite or sting? Why do some plants prickle, stab, irritate, or cut? One day, gloveless and careless, I tried to jerk out a tall stem of grass that demonstrated its audacity by growing where I didn’t want it. Of course, my grip slipped – there are those who say I’ve been losing my grip for a long time – and the durn thing sliced me! Grass cuts are even more fun than paper cuts. The neat little incisions the grass blades caused burned like crazy and bled impressively.

The spines of cacti and locust trees come immediately to mind, not to mention the Pyracantha (pyro=fire; canthus=thorn) many of us grow in our yard. Imagine for a minute that you’re a vegetarian animal without grasping fingers and a thumb. The only way to get a meal is to wrap your tongue around a succulent wild salad. No matter how good your prospective meal smelled, those thorns could quickly ruin your appetite. Raspberries and blackberries both have nasty thorns that seem to reach for us as we walk through the woods. Prickly pear cactus produces lovely deep red or purple fruit filled with juice and sugar. But their surface is covered with little clusters of almost microscopic, sharp hairs. Picking the “pears” without gloves is like crushing fiberglass in your hands. Not fun!

Many plants have juice that is poisonous or tastes terrible if eaten. Poison oak, ivy, and sumac cause rashes and intense itching when the chemical they contain gets on the skin.

Some snakes pack sharp fangs augmented with dangerous venom. If you live in the south, you may be blessed with all four of North America’s venomous snakes: copperheads, rattlesnakes, water moccasins, and coral snakes. Scorpions, centipedes, bees, and wasps have stingers and are capable of injecting painful poisons. Although their defense apparatus is most often intended to assist in food gathering, there is no doubt that they also use them to discourage attack. There are about a dozen caterpillars that are covered with irritating or stinging hairs or venomous spines. Encounters with any of these critters are not just painful, they can be life-threatening.

Horned toads (really horned lizards) can squirt blood from the inner corner of their eyes. Said to be intensely bitter, both the taste and the sudden spurt discourages animals from eating these interesting reptiles. Covered liberally with spines, especially on their heads, they make a painful mouthful, and some animals have been found dead with a “horny toad” stuck in their throat.

Snakes hiss and rear up. Some butterflies and moths quickly spread wings with startling patterns on them, such as large spots mimicking owl eyes. Viceroy butterflies are good eating for birds and other predators, but they look like nasty tasting, and even toxic, Monarchs. There are small caterpillars and leaf hoppers that look like twigs when they freeze at the approach of danger. Such mimicry is widespread in nature.

Nobody needs to be told about skunks, with their specialized anal glands and the ability to spray a ghastly, eye-burning spray several feet with great accuracy.

Sharp-edged or saw-toothed leaf edges, as well as thorns, spines, briars, itty-bitty stinging hairs on plants, fangs, stingers, painful hairs, stinging spines, and noxious juices serve the important purposes of protecting and defending.

The more I learn about nature, the more humbled I am by the intricate and complex interactions and checks and balances found there. In any case, the next time you are stung, stuck, scratched, or sprayed, remember, all these inconveniences were not intended to solely be a problem to you. They are all part of nature’s self-defense system.

Finally, hold in mind that Halloween is right around the corner – only 5 days from the publication of this column. Who knows what strange, demonic, sharp-toothed and fanged creatures with a thirst for blood, identified only in mythology, are lurking in the shadows of our fields and forests?

For an extra dose of Halloween as you roam the forests this season read Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky,” a poem from “Through the Looking Glass.”

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

What are they? As an old-time radio program always said, “only the Shadow knows.” So don’t say I didn’t warn you. Heh! Heh!

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.