Thursday, January 12, 2012

Alien Creatures at the Audubon Center

As Heather noted in the previous post, the Audubon Center has been enjoying the company of local students including those from as close as Blue Creek Elementary all the way out to Laurel.Their field trip to the Center includes many new discoveries. Every class brings in new questions, new ideas and a new set of eyes.

It was a cold day with a crisp wind, but rosy cheeks were not going to keep us from spotting a few birds on Wednesday.
Winter is a great time to take a look at birds. The leaves on the trees have fallen making it easier to catch a glimpse of a nest or two along with the birds that reside in Montana all year long.

Yet, it was not a bird that we spotted! We had made it to Wendel's Bridge and were looking at the water. It was iced over and I did not expect to see much of anything when an excited shout caused me to look closer. One of the students had noticed something moving under the ice.

To my best judgement it is a giant water bug.A giant water bug is a true bug.

The insect we saw moving in the water was large. Bo, an intern with CampusCorps at MSU-B, and I believed it to be about the size of our palm! It was a camel-tan color and had a distinct X-marking on it. We stood there with the students looking over the rail down at the water for sometime. The insect seemed to be crawling from one bank to the other with relative ease under the thick ice.

I became more confident in believing this to be a giant water bug as I found out that the insect is most active in the fall, but will move to deeper, slow-moving freshwater in the winter and be able to survive the whole year. It can range in size from 1.5 inches (3.8cm) to 4 inches (10cm) in length.

Even more interesting is that these insects are attracted to light and so will also be found on land near light poles or other sources of electricity which gives them the name "electric light bug." These insects are quite good at flying and use the light from the stars and moon to porch lights, to direct them through the night which is when they most commonly fly.

Additionally, the giant water bug has a powerful bite; using "piercing, sucking mouth parts, and a short, pointed beak on the underside of the head" to inject toxic enzymes which not only poison, but begin to digest the prey. Although not dangerous, humans have also experienced this bite and have named it "toe-biter" as well. The giant water bug is an adept predator. It will lay motionless, looking much like a leaf, until prey arrives and will ambush it. Or using its strong rear legs will scuttle through the water with ease and quickly grasp at small fish, tadpoles, or even salamanders and deliver its bite.

It really seemed like an alien experience to see such a large insect during the winter, but without the fresh eyes of our students a discovery like this would not have been possible. Getting to go outside and explore your surroundings with a new friend can bring a discovery that you were not expecting. So, make some time to do some birding and you may find more than you anticipated!

1 comment:

  1. That is quite interesting!

    There was a water bug in a small aquarium when I was an intern at ZooMontana. While fascinating it was also semi-frightning when I was instructed to clean the cage and given the warning not to let it bite me....

    But, it didn't bite me.

    I've never seen one in the wild (to my knowledge) and I'd have never guessed you'd find them under the ice. Nature and all the critters are just so neat.