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Felder’s Bizarre Critters

Felder Rushing

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Don’t look too closely at a cicada, whose lurid red eyes are downright nightmarish.

Cicadas are truly odd critters, living underground for years as soft, thumb-size grubs, only to emerge with hard-shell exoskeletons and brittle wings for a few days of rattling out raspy mating songs before becoming fodder for birds and possums… what a life.

But while discussing them on the radio the last week I got stumped good and proper by someone asking me what the weirdest creature is I have ever come across in the garden. I ended up pondering myself down a very dark rabbit hole of unexpected face-to-faces with natural oddities. The more I conjured and jotted down from a lifetime of studying backyard wildlife, the more peculiar the creatures got.

Keep in mind that this old guy was raised on black and white Star Trek and Twilight Zone, when even little kids could tell there was a guy in that rubbery Godzilla suit and stop-action clay dinosaurs didn’t look real.

Still, I’ve encountered some real doozies, from my early days of following a horticulturist/naturalist great-grandmother around her garden. Due to limited hand-eye coordination, I wasn’t suited for sports, so while friends were in baseball or football practice, I was learning to fish for doodlebugs with grass straws and ferrying golfball-size turtle hatchlings past hungry bluejays to the safety of the bayou that skirted our property.

I clearly remember as a ten-year old, bicycling Mason jars containing captured insects to the county Extension Agent’s office where the agriculture expert would patiently stop what he was doing to help me look them up in his thick, worn entomology book. One turned out to be the clear-winged sphinx moth that looked all the world to me like a hybrid bumblebee and hummingbird. He also showed me the tiny “flight stabilizer stems” behind giant crane flies’ hind legs.

There were hidden scorpions, shimmery dragonflies, writhing masses of parasitic horsehair worms, giant yellow-and-black garden spiders, and fast-moving predatory tiger beetles with iridescent green shells and oversized jaws, which turned out to be the adult stage of the gnarly doodlebug larvae. Oh, and I only got stung once before learning that large, orange-and-black “velvet” or “cow-killer” ants are actually wingless wasps with stingers that could piece a toenail. Yeah.

Not getting into the reptiles lurking in my little urban garden, from the ordinary green “chameleon” anoles and their strawberry-red dewlaps, late-night geckos that can outrun roaches, blue-tailed skinks, pencil-size brown worm snakes eating slugs in the monkey grass, and the big, speckled king snake that eats everything else. They are what they are.

But though few gardeners have patience with slugs and snails, one is worth encouraging: the native rosy wolf snail with its pointed, tan shell. It’s not only the fastest snail in the state [insert snail vs turtle joke here], but also eats other snails and slugs full-time. That’s right, a fast predatory snail.

But to me, the weirdest creatures of all are the loathsome “shovelhead” flatworms that every now and then spur alarmist, click-bait hype from bored writers; they’re nothing new – I learned about them in my parents’ Delta garden in the ‘60s.

The long, flat, sticky, wormlike creatures move like slugs, their quavering dark “head plates” trembling and quavering as they slime-slither through dark, damp areas. Yes, they eat worms, but, according to ecologists, not all that many; they also eat each other. And yes, they produce a mild neurotoxin, so don’t eat any. Oh, and cut-off bits can grow into new planarians.

Has this creeped you out enough? What bizarre critters lurk in your garden?

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